Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:06 - Released 12/22/99

Adapting a novel of any depth into a 2-hour motion picture would be a difficult task, particularly a best-selling novel like Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson. The film not only has to convey the plot and thematic elements intelligently in an abbreviated time, but has to stand up against the book's more global scope. However, writer Ronald Bass and Oscar-nominated writer/director Scott Hicks (Shine) have taken this challenge and crafted a deep, thoughtful drama with a good pace and yet an adequately well-textured narrative. While I have not been impressed with Bass's screenplays in the past (What Dreams May Come, Stepmom), with Hicks he has achieved a text more deeply grounded in story and less dependent on emotional manipulation. What's more, with an intense courtroom drama, a tender love affair, and a telling history lesson about the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, it seems to have something for everyone.

Snow Falling On Cedars is a film that continually jumps back and forth in time between a 1950 murder trial, the early '40s, when WWII began for the U.S., and the early-to-mid '30s, when an adolescent love affair bloomed between a white American boy and a Japanese American girl. Even though Ishmael (Ethan Hawke) and Hatsue (Youki Kudoh) have been in love since they were kids (played by Reeve Carney and Ann Suzuki), Hatsue knows that they can never stay together. Their small Washington fishing village is inhabited by almost equal numbers of Japanese and whites, but there are still many deep racial and cultural divisions. Ishmael's father (Sam Shepard), the publisher and editor of the town's newspaper, is known for his respect of the Asian community; however, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent detention of all Japanese Americans in internment camps ends any likelihood of a white boy marrying a "Jap" girl, no matter where his family's sympathies lie.

When a fisherman dies one foggy night many years later, and his body is found tangled in his net in the North Pacific waters, the local authorities suspect foul play. Carl Heine (Eric Thal) was known as a very careful boatman, and not only that, he apparently encountered his longtime colleague Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) on the night of his death. While the two men had been friends in the past, they had recently been at odds over a parcel of land Kazuo's father bought from Carl's father before the war. The anti-Japanese sentiment in the area doesn't help things any, so Kazuo is immediately suspected of murdering Carl Heine on that foggy night at sea. The task of covering the trial for the newspaper is especially difficult for Ishmael, since his former lover Hatsue is now married to the accused.

The performances in this film are impeccable with the unfortunate exception of its lead. Hawke is unspectacular as Ishmael, but the fact that he is surrounded by such talent helps a lot. Kudoh is excellent, as are many supporting cast members like Shepard, James Cromwell as the judge, and James Rebhorn and Max von Sydow as the attorneys on the case, but they are all practically overshadowed by Carney and Suzuki as the young cross-cultural lovers. The performances of these two teens are every bit equal to the emotional intensity of the scenes they share. Music and scenery are also very important factors in this movie's overall effect; James Newton Howard's score is majestic, and the cinema by Robert Richardson features memorable images both good and bad. Hicks's use of flashback and the repetetive nature of Ishmael's memories aptly show the conflict within him (even if Hawke doesn't).

Snow Falling On Cedars leaves one with the feeling of having just finished a good novel; this is perhaps the highest praise one could offer a film based on a best-seller. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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