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In 1950, Ishmael (Ethan Hawke) lives on Puget Sounds with his family, the owners and publishers of a small-town, one-reporter newspaper that has always been on the side of right and therefore controversial. In service to the United States during the great war, Ishmael lost an arm in battle. Earlier, as a high school student, he met and become deeply attracted to Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), a Japanese girl in his school. The youngsters sharde a bond and a first kiss that now haunts them both. She, from a strict traditional family, is forbidden to socialize with those not of her race, and so their brief love affair ends with both in turmoil.
Time passes and she marries Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), Japanese-American who also served in the United States military, becoming a decorated soldier in the war. When his neighbor Carl, a fellow fisherman, is lost at sea, initial evidence suggests that he was murdered so Kazuo is accused and forced to stand trial. The proceedings divide the town, which already suffered a cataclysmic shift during the war as the town’s Japanese residents were removed from their homes and put into interment camps.
Directed by Scott Hicks, Snow Falling on Cedars is based on the book of the same name by David Guterson. A quiet, moody film of sensual emotional depth, it is led by powerful performances, with Hawke and Kudoh especially good. Hawke, who has made a career out of introspective characters, is at his peak here, with a subdued, heartbreaking role that he plays to near perfection. He is a hero in the quietest of terms. Max von Sydow plays Nels Gudmundsson, an old-time lawyer who has seen it all, a brilliant orator with a great love of his country, but a deeper love for humanity. What is most breathtaking about the film though is the remarkable cinematography by Oscar winning Robert Richardson, who photographs Puget Sound in astonishing light.
While the film misses the chance to give Kazuo more depth, and therefore grant him more sympathy from the viewer, the richly-layered film hits nearly all the right marks and remains a gripping, romantic, emotional journey.
During the trial, Kazuo seems an emotionless man, sitting with no expression as the charges, and the animosity, mount. Proud of his heritage, but more so a true American patriot, he is convinced his face, being Japanese, has already condemned him and remains stoic as he seems willing to accept the inevitable. On his side is his lawyer, Gudmendsson, a weathered attorney of great respect who is equally convinced of his client’s innocence and even more in the power of due process. While race has yet to truly be an openly stated issue in the case, it persists in whispers and glances, and as the closing remarks are heard, Gudmendsson addresses the silent poison in the room.
In the 1993 courtroom drama Philadelphia, Denzel Washington, playing defense attorney Joe Miller, stands before the court and boldly talks about prejudice against homosexuality, claiming that even though the case is ostensibly about the wrongful termination of his client Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), everyone in the room is thinking silently about what kind of man Andrew is. The rousing and emotional speech is a turning point in the film. For Snow Falling on Cedars, this moment is the same. Gudmendsson, with ache in his voice for a fear that his beloved country is losing its core values, pleads for the jurors to ignore the aspersions the prosecution is using to taint the trial. The passion behind his voice is especially effective as he pointedly discusses race and the painful history that devastated his client’s family and people.
The scene is almost entirely in close-up, focused on von Sydow’s emotive face as he delivers what amounts to be the film’s most impressive moment. Hicks frames the sequence as if Gudmendsson is speaking directly at us, as if we are the jurors hearing his closing. In fact, we don’t see the people he addresses once during in the speech. It’s a calculated move that effectively puts us in a seat of judgement. By keeping Gudmendsson in a conversational distance to the audience, we instinctively listen more carefully, our eyes tracking his every facial expression and instinctively sympathizing with his plea. We question ourselves and consider his words, and think bigger. Hicks wisely allows von Sydow’s already melodic voice to carry the tone, avoiding unnecessary music to manipulate, waiting until he finishes to signal a close to the scene.
The moment is challenging, a broad, in-your-face personal account of our own standards. Von Sydow, who has been making films since the late 1940s, is breathlessly good, in only a few minutes, forcing examination on a terrible chapter in our history while asking us to fulfill the promise of humanity itself.
David Guterson (novel), Ronald Bass (screenplay)
Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Max von Sydow, Yûki Kudô