Snow Falling on Cedars

December 9th, 2009

S: Back in the late 1990s I read a really wonderful book that was suspenseful, romantic and moving. I read it in the dead of winter (which was appropriate since most of the book takes place in a very cold town, in a very cold courtroom). It’s the story of two generations of people who are united and divided by race, culture, and war. I loved the book.

When the movie came out, I was apprehensive. Sometimes films just can’t capture a movie  and I’m usually disappointed. But – this movie is lovely. It captures the essence of the book and has amazing performances by Max Von Sydow and Sam Sheppard, as well as one of the most beautiful scores there is; I watch this every chance I get.

The only word of warning I have is that I read the book… so the movie made sense to me. The entire film is made up of flashbacks, just like the book, and they come up as memories to the various characters in the story. They aren’t all in chronological order. Since I had read the book, it all made perfect sense to me. In fact, I appreciated that they didn’t over-explain, or ruin the dreamlike quality of the book. However, if you haven’t read the book, it could be a bit confusing, and you might have to watch it twice to really get it. (You can’t go wrong reading the book first, it’s a wonderful read, especially in the wintertime.)

The story is a basic courtroom drama involving the possible murder of a fisherman out in a foggy channel in the Pacific Northwest. It is set in post World War II Washington state, and the townsfolk are still not over the trauma of the war and the difficulties the population endured. When a local Japanese American man is arrested for the murder, many twisted relationships and long-forgotten memories surface. The flashbacks involve two people, Ishmael (Hawke) and  Hatsue (Kudoh), who shared a secret love when they were young, a love that was ripped apart by the war.  He is the son of the town’s progressive newspaper editor, she is the daughter of Japanese immigrant farmers. Ishmael becomes involved in the court case because he has taken over the newspaper upon returning from fighting in the war and Hatsue’s husband is the man charged with the crime.

Ishmael is faced with hard choices as he remembers and comes to terms with his own pain and suffering. By  facing his demons, he redeems himself and those that were torn apart by the war and heals some of the racial scars in the community. While this is no fairy-tale, it’s sublime and profound in its way. A quiet story – the snow that falls throughout the film ads much to the ambience, and the Pacific Northwest scenery is like a supporting actor in itself. Max von Sydow is just right in his portrayal of the defense lawyer – he’s such a huge talent and I was sorry he didn’t get an Oscar nod for his supporting performance in this film. It’s is a great story, a beautiful, haunting, winter movie. I’m sorry my Father never got to read the book or see the movie, I’m sure he would have loved them both.

Released: 7 January 2000
Director: Scott Hicks
Ethan Hawke – Ishmael Chambers
Youki Kudoh – Hatsue Miyamoto
Max von Sydow – Nels Gudmundsson
Sam Shepard – Arthur Chambers
Score: James Newton Howard
Book: David Guterson

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