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Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

"First loves last. Forever."

On first look, this film falls neatly into the murder mystery / courtroom drama genre. However, though good mysteries often entertain as well as any type of movie, this film harbors more for the viewer. Based on the popular novel by David Guterson, Director Scott Hicks has made a movie both visually striking and insightful about human nature in many of its aspects. Race prejudice occupies “center stage,” but war and its many consequences also figure prominently. I believe the film demonstrates a relationship that often exists between them.

The unfolding of the story holds a considerable portion of the movie's charm. Often facts about the characters surprise the viewer. The movie's time line does not follow a simple linear development. “Flashbacks” give much of the background for the story, occurring throughout the film, but carefully woven into the fabric of the central mystery / courtroom story. Describing this film with written words seems both precarious – since I wish to avoid spoilers – and very difficult – because of the skill with which the director has put together a chronologically complex movie.

The movie opens with a deep fog shrouding the creaky fishing boat of Carl Heine Jr. (Eric Thal). He lights a lantern and blows a foghorn. As he holds his lantern up to an approaching shape, it eventually shows Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) holding a wicked looking fishing tool.

The scene changes abruptly to later that same morning and two men pulling in a fishing net. They discover a grisly catch: Carl Heine Jr.'s apparently drowned body. Sheriff Art Moran (Richard Jenkins), now must tell Carl's young wife about his fate, as well as attempt to figure out how Carl drowned. As Sheriff Moran talks with other fishermen, the local newspaperman: Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) arrives at the wharf scene. The sheriff discourages Ishmael from writing about murder investigations, but apparently the sheriff feels something seems not quite right about Carl's death.

The credits roll over wintry scenes of the small fishing village as snow falls. Months have passed from the time of the drowning. Ishmael walks to the local courthouse. Climbing the steps to an upper level of the building, he sees a young woman sitting on a bench inside. As he calls to her, Hatsue Imada Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh), Kazuo's wife, tells him to “Go away.”

Ishmael has come to the courthouse to cover the trial of Kazuo Miyamoto for the murder of Carl Heine Jr. The courtroom fills as the prosecutor Alvin Hooks (James Rebhorn) and defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson (Max von Sydow) exchange greetings before the trial begins. As Ishmael watches Hatsue enter the courtroom, he remembers events from many years before. Hatsue (young Hatsue: Anne Suzuki) and he (young Ishmael: Reeve Carney) had been playmates when young and then more as they grew older.

As the prosecutor begins his case with Sheriff Moran, the sheriff tells how he began to suspect that the drowning was not accidental. Carl had always been meticulously careful, doing everything “by the book.” As Nels questions the sheriff, the prosecutor objects. Nels banters a bit and Judge Fielding (James Cromwell) chides him for not acting his age. Nels responds: “If I did that, your honor, I'd be dead.” In the small town everyone knows everyone else and they generally get along well. Of course, exceptions to that general rule exist. One of those exceptions figures prominently in the supposed motivation for murder in the prosecutor's case against Kazuo Miyamoto

The cinematography of this film stands out as quite exceptional. It was nominated for an Academy Award for cinematography. However, in addition to the filming itself, the clothing, cars, houses and all of the sets should produce a strong nostalgic feeling for someone old enough to remember the way things once looked in America. However, beyond the look of the movie, the thematic elements should also stir emotions. The background for the central murder mystery involves an interracial love affair, World War II, internment camps for Japanese-Americans and the consequences which all these things had for individuals and their families, who now figure in the murder mystery / courtroom drama.

This film has few equals in the craft applied to create such a finely drawn drama. A large and respected cast excels in playing the members of all the families: Chambers, Imada, Miyamoto and Heine. Since most of the film comes from Ishmael's point of view, his parents – father: Arthur (Sam Shepard) and mother Helen (Caroline Kava) may deserve special mention. However, I believe the majority of the credit for this film's lasting success belongs with the director: Scott Hicks. If you like mysteries with social overtones, or the telling of a storyline that moves around in time, this film should suit you. I liked it a great deal and recommend it highly. The horrible consequences of both war and racial prejudice, as well as their occasional interrelation, get a close examination in Snow Falling on Cedars.

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