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SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS(director/writer: Scott Hicks; screenwriters: novel by David Guterson/Ron Bass; cinematographer: Robert Richardson; editor: Hank Corwin; cast: Ethan Hawke (Ishmael Chambers), James Cromwell (Judge Fielding), Richard Jenkins (Sheriff Art Moran), James Rebhorn (Alvin Hooks), Sam Shepard (Arthur Chambers), Max von Sydow (Nels Gudmundsson), Youki Kudoh (Hatsue Miyamoto), Rick Yune (Kazuo Miyamoto); Runtime: 126; Universal Pictures; 1999)
“Everything seemed so mechanical.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

What I didn’t need was Australian director/writer of “Cedars,” Scott Hicks (“Shine“), to tell me what a bad thing the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was for a little over two hours of a darkly photographed film (it’s so obviously a bad thing) and then precede to bore me to death with a glum romantic/courtroom drama that never got untracked.

The film is set in the Pacific Northwest of Washington, on an island fishing village in the early 1950s, where the weather was either misty or snowing. The first part of the film just stagnated, as uninvolving flashbacks and uninteresting storytelling techniques prevailed without fleshing out the characters.

A fisherman is found dead entangled in his net and the sheriff who discovers the body suspects foul play. Through flashbacks at the trial that moves back and forth from present to past we learn that the fisherman was a childhood friend of Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), who is being accused of the murder because he was the last one on the boat with the fisherman and had a motive for killing him. He is a decorated Japanese-American war veteran, whose family was to buy land from the fisherman’s white family but missed their payments when Miyamoto’s family was sent to the detention camp for the remainder of the war. He is now asking his childhood fishing partner to consider going against his mother and sell him the land. The fisherman’s mother had a bias against the Japanese because of Pearl Harbor and sold the land to a white farmer, returning to the Japanese family all the money they put into the land for payments.

In the middle of a snow storm enters the reluctant hero, Ishmael Chambers (Hawke). He’s smelling a story that intrigues him, now a reporter on the same paper his father worked as a crusading-editor (Shepherd). His father sought justice for the Japanese-Americans during WW11, reminding his readers that they are our neighbors. Ishmael had fallen madly in love with Kazuo’s wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), as a teenager when they grew up so close to each other; but, she sent him a “Dear John” letter after her mother urged her to only marry a Japanese boy. This happened when she was in the internment camp and he was fighting in the South Pacific.

At the trial we see a fair-minded judge (Cromwell), a one-dimensional bigoted D.A. (Rebhorn), and the defense attorney Gudmundsson (Max Von Sydow), who tries to steal every scene he is in with his sometimes mellifluous and other times doddering spiel in defense of Kazuo. He brings up a corny liberal argument against prejudice and finally tells the court — humanity itself is on trial. Von Sydow reflects the opinions of the author of the popular novel the film is based on, David Guterson. Everything seemed so contrived, the cinematography was darkly uninspiring and the courtroom seemed to be staged only as a reason to give the filmmaker his chance to applaud himself for being so free of bias.

Everything seemed so mechanical. I was unable to see what the fuss was about in telling Americans that their country shamefully put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during the war. What’s the surprise? Don’t they teach that in the high school social studies courses anymore?


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”