Snow Falling on Cedars Reviews
Taking place on isolated, Washingtonian island San Piedro during heavy winter in 1950, the film revolves around a murder trial. The accused is Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a young Japanese man; the victim is Carl Heine (Eric Thal), a German fisherman whose death rings mysteriously to the townspeople around him. Unfortunately, San Pierdo, still suffers from extremely racist tendencies due to WWII, which causes Kazuo's chances of running free very slim.
Simultaneously, "Snow Falling on Cedars" dives into the parallel story of Kazuo's wife, Hatsue's (Youki Kudoh) past love affair with local Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), who still longs for her despite years of separation and Hatsue's long-lasting union to Kazuo. The love between them at one time was strong, but the segregation of their community ripped them apart, reminding us, yet again, that the trial itself may not end so happily.
There no doubt that if you haven't read "Snow Falling on Cedars," watching the film is going to be like watching paint dry. Not only can it be confusing, but there is so much happening at once that it can be a bit challenging to take it all in. But the novel itself is exactly how the movie is portrayed - filled with jumping flashbacks and differing plot lines, heavy atmosphere, and an overall feeling of immense dramatic tension that gives every scene a sense of intriguing beauty.
The film captures every little bit of the novel, with very few changes in store (despite Kabuo's name being swapped for Kazuo, which doesn't make much sense anyway). Guterson's work is thick with description, taking us to the island of San Piedro and letting us bathe in the dank weather that plagues it. Rather than being flat, "Snow Falling on Cedars" (the film) is shot with sumptuous and intricate cinematography that mirrors the luscious richness that originally was thought out.
One of the most intriguing ideas presented in the novel is how disgustingly prejudice society was during the 1950s. Though the war was long over, the disdain for the Japanese was still in store, which is a detail most people in the modern world forget about. On paper, the side story of Ishmael and Hatsue's relationship seems like a filler, but in actuality, it compliments the trial - the two could not be together thanks to their different origins, and in the meantime, Hatsue is married to Kazuo because of prejudice, and later on, he is accused of a crime with evidence that more clearly targets his race rather than the facts.
In the novel, these aspects are highly fascinating and often times thought-provoking, and the film brings them to life with smooth adjustment and complete grace. Ishmael and Hatsue's relationship is fleshed out with tenderness, while the hate by the townspeople of San Piedro is just as bitter and sickening.
The acting by the cast is simply extraordinary, with characterizations that perfectly line up. Hawke captures Ishmael's sensitivity, while Imada glows with Hatsue's fragile beauty that masks a deeply disturbed inner-self.
"Snow Falling on Cedars" is an ultra-stylized adaptation of the novel that works in almost every way. But mark my words, read the source material first, or it's going to end up being one seriously bumpy ride.
Snow Falling on Cedars is part murder mystery, part inter-racial love story, and part confessional history lesson. The plot and cinematography are practically one and the same, plodding dreamily along like the relentless waves of snow that blanket the Puget Sound islands off the coast of Washington, enveloping us in a sense of isolation and nature's timeless disinterest in the schedules or quandaries of man. The overbearing weather does little to cover the raw racial tensions surrounding the trial, with the recent end of the second World War and Washington's own uncomfortable history of Japanese internment fresh on everyone's mind. Time has dulled the oppressive power of these remorseful events, but in the winter of 1950 they were as raw and familiar as an open wound.
The actual investigation and courtroom drama is a very small part of the movie, as it spends most of its time wandering off on compelling flashback tangents. These segments are conjured during the trial scenes to clarify the history between the characters and establish their motivations. But sometimes they just sneak in out of nowhere for the sake of enriching the narrative, and proceed carry the move for a while. As far as flashbacks go they are extremely atmospheric, brimming with secret regrets, unspoken hatreds, and unremitting lusts. They make you feel like you are right there, suffering these people's personal trials and experiencing their forbidden joys, almost as though we have opened a window into some secret truth, some soul-shattering epiphany, and then with a snap of the fingers we are back in the melancholy present.
Front and center is quiet, reserved Ishmael (Ethan Hawke), son of a disgraced local newspaperman, who calmly observes and documents the unfolding of the case even as his heart threatens to burst from his chest. For you see, the wife of the accused, lovely Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), was his secret childhood sweetheart, but he lost her. In flashbacks, we see them catching each other's eyes across a bustling strawberry patch, then chasing each other through a mist-soaked forest, then making love under the roots of a massive cedar. We see Hatsue suffering the wrath of her race-centric mother, and watch them all suffer the government's wrath following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ishmael's initial sympathy for the Japanese citizenry of his island home wanes as he watches his father (Sam Shepard) buckle under the pressure of phone threats and cancelled subscriptions over his neutral, Jap-friendly journalism. We see him turn his back in disbelief as his friends and neighbors are rounded up by soldiers to be shipped off to concentration camps, and watch him tag along on one of countless buses headed to said camps for the sake of a story.
These memories culminate in a powerful sequence where Ishmael storms a gore-ridden beach (presumably against the Japanese in the pacific islands), superimposed with another memory of his storming an empty, log-strewn stretch of coast with his lost love, the words of her somber goodbye letter echoing from her mouth and contorting in his mind, transforming into bitterness and hatred, hammered home by the real physical pain of a debilitating war wound.
Some consider this film quite pretentious, which isn't fair. Yes, it is filmed and told in a muted, long-winded, abstract way, and asks you to patiently go along with it. Big deal, welcome to the movies. An actual pretentious film would use these techniques to sell a hackneyed, heavy-handed message, which is absent here, instead we find a simple story told in a very fascinating way. It doesn't indulge, it flows. The best example are the restrained courtroom scenes, which are more interested in character than law. Observe the wonderful Max Von Sydow's long closing monologue, which is shot up close and never strays for dramatic affect. It isn't until after all the relevant evidence has been considered and the verdict has been delivered that we are shown faces of relief and shock in equal measure. The final crash of the judge's gavel is more condemnation of our collective guilt than of the crime of any one man.
Ultimately, this is not a film about racism. It's really about perspective, but it's more personal than that. It's about cause and effect, and how the two can become irrationally tangled inside one's mind when our emotions come crashing in. This creates twisted feelings of regret and fear that can manifest as racial mistrust, and in moments of weakness it is human nature to marginalize and resent someone who looks and acts differently than we do. But in the end, we all mean well. To show that, to really make you understand and bring you into the fold of why these characters, these townsfolk, do the things they do, you cannot simply show actors speaking and telling a story, or even recreate the scenes themselves, as this lends to sappiness and manipulation by the filmmakers. You need to selectively show us specific memories, images that stand out in their minds that will forever temper their existence, the meaningful moments and gestures, letting us linger on expressions of pain and love and their immediate emotional consequences, as these are the things that really spur us to change. The movie does so quite brilliantly, and we the viewer feel almost as though we are viewing the events through the soul's impartial eyes, if that makes any sense.
It was also nice to see a movie about Japanese-White relations, as opposed to every other racial epic that seems to focus on Latinos and Blacks, which has been done to death. The racial subplot of the film really highlights what it is that makes us perceive someone as "different". There isn't one black person in the film, uh oh! There are however lots of Dutch, Scandenavian, French, Italian and German whites. The Japanese-Americans in my opinion are also technically "white", but because they look markedly different than the type of whites we are comfortable with, and because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time at this particular moment in history, their lives are rife for accusation.
The conclusion to the murder trial is also quite ingenious, and I didn't see it coming for miles, which was refreshing and fit in nicely with the point the movie was trying to make. The answer was right in front of Ishmael all along, and we realize that this cinematic journey of remorse and reflection was part of Ishmael's coming to terms with letting go and doing what needed to be done, for himself and for his community, and we are invited to see ourselves in Ishmael, with his measures of compassion and prejudice. Sometimes we get so caught up in assigning blame that we forget the universe is full of random regrettable tragedy.
Beautiful work, and a big love letter to the people and history of the Pacific Northwest, an area of the country woefully underutilized in cinema except as a backdrop for cheap film-making. If you haven't seen it yet, I would suggest you ignore my review, turn the lights down, take a few shots and let it carry you away with an open mind, since it is definitely one of those movies that is more fun to experience than it is to try to explain.