Looming in the commotion is the powerful disgrace of the American internment of the Japanese-Americans, who are herded, nametags hanging from their buttonholes, into buses for delivery to the camps.
The best-selling novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, has fallen victim to a group of filmmakers intent on making an art film. They are so in love with the scenery that they have killed a good story with a kindly hand. Imagine acres and more acres of snow-capped cedars bending to the background singing of choirs of angels. Long silences demand our reverence. Multiple morphings of memory-past to present, present to past-become a pretentious mixture of image and dialogue. The movie aspires to art and drowns in confusion.
Director Scott Hicks faced a tough task in compressing a prodigious amount of material. The story of the murder of a fisherman and the subsequent trial of a suspect are set against the racial polarization of a fictional island near Puget Sound. Cutting awkwardly from WWII battle scenes to the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps to a postwar love story, Mr. Hicks forces us to work far too hard to follow the plot. When we finally give up, we are adrift in overblown imagery and portentous music.
Newspaper reporter Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) may or may not hold the evidence necessary to clear murder suspect Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune). It is annoyingly unclear why Ishmael takes so long to jump into the case considering his profession and his legacy as the son of Arthur Chambers (Sam Shepard), legendary editor of the local newspaper. Is it because he has long loved Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), wife of the accused Kazuo? Is it because he still resents the Japanese for the loss of his arm in a wartime battle? This battle, set to an awful blend of soaring music and machine gun bullets, is mercifully short, but embarrassingly inept.
Whatever takes Ishmael so long, actor Ethan Hawke doesn't help us a bit. Expressionless in word and voice, he forces us to imagine his thoughts by watching how people respond to him. Rick Yune and Youki Kudoh, on the other hand, build real characters as the embattled Japanese-American couple. Flashbacks of Kazuo and Hatsue frolicking as children create a lovely sense of growing up on the island.
Looming in the commotion is the powerful disgrace of the American internment of the Japanese-Americans, who are herded, nametags hanging from their buttonholes, into buses for delivery to the camps. America did not murder her wartime prisoners, but the grim truth is that we interned the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast because they were easily identifiable. We did not collect and imprison the Germans or the Italians in the East.
It is left to Max von Sydow, in a standout performance as defense lawyer Nels Gudmundsson, to look into the heart of a small community whose integrity and humanity are on trial. Riveting in his embodiment of bedrock values, Mr. von Sydow's performance is a wonderful bit of moral incorruptibility that resonates strongly in the ethically barren culture of today. He very nearly rescues the film-but only nearly.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 498
Studio : Universal
Rating : PG-13
Running time :
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