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SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Ethan Hawke, James Cromwell, Youki Kudoh, Sam Shepard, Max Von Sydow
Director: Scott Hicks
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital, French Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: Universal Pictures
Features: See Review
Length: 128 Minutes
Release Date: May 30, 2000

Film ****

Films that tell tales mostly through vivid images and memories are remarkable mainly because they are so rare, and it’s a very unconventional way of movie making. Scott Hicks’ Snow Falling on Cedars is just such a film. Watching the film, I was immediately reminded of the work of Terrance Malick, particularly The Thin Red Line, which is also told mainly through reflections and images. Other than Malick, no other director, and I might be wrong about this, has approached the craft of storytelling that finds itself present in Snow Falling On Cedars. It is a film rich in detail, haunting in its visuals and a passion for the life of its characters.

Adapted from a best-selling novel by David Guterson, Cedars is a tale of memories recollected during the course of a murder trial in the time of WWII, circa 1950s in the Pacific Northwest. What is mainly recalled is a high school love affair between present day newspaper reporter Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) and Hatsue Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh). Hatsue is the wife of Japanese-American soldier Kazuo Miyamoto, who’s on trial for the murder of a local fisherman. Kazuo is a somewhat believable suspect, because he previously had a dispute with the victim over entitlement to ownership of land. He claims the land was taken from him when he had to be pulled away for duty in the war. The trial goes on throughout the movie, and is crucial, since its decision will judge the fate of many of the characters, and may cause old flames to resurface.

Chambers is also a war veteran, having lost an arm in combat. He is covering the trial for the local paper, but one look at Hatsue cannot stop him from recalling his passionate days with her. At the crucial point of their romance, the spent most of their time making love in a green cavern, in the roots of a cedar tree. At a time when the Japanese and Americans seemed to be against one another, Ishmael and Hatsue were keeping this from their parents, of course. In one scene, Hatsue’s mother advises her to marry one of her own, and to stay away from young white boys. They were separated when Hatsue and her family were sent to internment camps, and Ishmael went into service.

The way the story unfolds through these series of flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, is undeniably powerful and mesmerizing. Both Hicks and cinematographer Robert Richardson, famous for his camerawork in films from such directors as Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese, create images and camera shots that will remain in my mind for a long time, and hopefully yours, too. The scenery of the snow-covered San Pedro Island is true beauty, and very remarkable work.

The entire cast is one to shout about. Hawke has always proven himself as a serious, dramatic young actor, in such films as Great Expectations and Gattaca. He is wonderful in the lead role, displaying real emotions of a man torn from a broken love that he cherished. Max Von Sydow is remarkable as always as the defensive lawyer, whose summation scene is among the veteran actor’s greatest moments. The always-reliable James Cromwell is very well cast as the judge, and Sam Shepard is very good as Ishmael’s very open-minded father. And newcomer Youki Kudoh is especially good as a woman torn by the past, and who frequently finds life to be very unfair, much like Ishmael does.

In short, Snow Falling on Cedars is nothing short of astonishing. Its look is visually haunting and stunning. The flashback structure is absorbing and done in a way that is extremely rare in Hollywood, and the story is very involving and grabs you right from scene one. It is based on a best selling novel which, judging by how the movie struck me, I might find myself reading pretty soon.

Video ****

I can certainly say that since my first viewing of this movie was on DVD, that the amazing video quality helped enhance my love for the film’s look. Universal has done one of their most amazing video transfers to date with this release. The anamorphic presentation is clear and sharp to the max. It’s simply grand to see a film of tremendous beauty come to life in a downright wonderful transfer.

Audio ****

Universal gets the double dosage of props for this transfer. Where as the video transfer is of sheer top-notch quality, the audio on Snow Falling on Cedars is of pure high quality. A musical score is almost always playing when backing up a flashback scene, and the music comes through the 5.1 Digital presentation with an immensely beautiful sound. The sound of the movie on DVD equally enhances the viewer’s emotional response to the movie, as where the visual beauty enhances the awe of the look of the film.

Features ***1/2

Universal has not let us down in the features department since the beginning of the year, and the features on this disc are living proving of that. There is a twenty-minute behind the scenes documentary, a commentary by Scott Hicks, a trailer for the movie, as well as a couple of trailers for upcoming Universal releases, and a number of Deleted Scenes. Universal used the perfect amount of toppings for this release.

Summary:

Snow Falling on Cedars is one of last years’ best films, and it’s the kind of film that isn’t made often in modern-day Hollywood. Those appreciate film, and fans of Hicks’ work should without a doubt take advantage of this film. Much like what was promised in Malick’s Days of Heaven, your senses will be astounded.