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Snow Falling on Cedars

"Snow Falling on Cedars" on DVD

Ethnic Cleansing?

Universal’s movie of the popular David Guterson novel is a visually lush twist on “To Kill a Mocking Bird” that deals with the issues of justice and prejudice in an unusual setting.

Set in the early 1950’s, the story follows small town journalist Ethan Hawke as he attends a murder trial in which a Japanese-American is accused of killing a German-American neighbor. He’s there for professional reasons, but as the trial unfolds he finds himself drawn into it personally because the accused is married to his childhood sweetheart, a girl with whom he had a forbidden relationship

Why the “ethnic-American” tags? The whole movie is about ethnicity and the prejudices is can stir up.

The Japanese Americans are easy targets. They look and act differently than the white-Americans – and then their old homeland attacks Pearl Harbor and the US is dragged kicking and screaming into World War II.

“Snow Falling on Cedars” gives us a good look at a bad time in North American history, when the Japanese attack led to a severe (but, looking back through the lens of time, understandable) overreaction that saw Americans and Canadians of Japanese descent rounded up and carted away to internment camps where they, supposedly, couldn’t work to the benefit of the Japanese Empire’s war machine.

It was an embarrassing and inhuman thing to do, but who are we – sixty years on – to judge the actions of our forefathers when we weren’t there and don’t know what they were experiencing. At the time, they undoubtedly thought it was a reasonable precaution. They were probably wrong, but were doing their best under incredibly trying circumstances.

Ain’t hindsight grand?

Still, the interment of Japanese-North Americans, as pointed out by Hawke’s father and mentor (Sam Shepard), made no sense in the grand scheme of things – especially since the powers that be didn’t round up North Americans of German and Italian descent. But then again, those of Japanese descent were easier to find…

Anyway, that’s the background against which our story is set, and it’s a background that’s worth being explored.

The story takes place in a small island community in Washington State, and the filmmakers have done a wonderful job of capturing the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. The film’s full of shots that would make wonderful wall posters or murals for nature lovers. There are some great surround audio effects, too, relating to the weather and/or locale.

Unlike the blurb on the box, “Snow Falling on Cedars” is not a “riveting tale of mystery.” That doesn’t mean it’s no good. While structured in an extremely non-linear manner, the film is generally easy to follow, and rarely confusing, as it pulls you along with the narrative.

You know the accused undoubtedly didn’t do it, so what suspense there is comes from whether the rest of the community will do the right thing or whether they’ll succumb to their prejudices instead.

The cast is full of good performances, especially from Youki Kudoh as Hawke’s old flame, and Max von Sydow as the crusty old defence attorney.

The DVD is in widescreen, Dolby Digital, and as mentioned above it looks and sounds terrific. Extras include a feature commentary by director Scott (“Shine”) Hicks. There’s also a “spotlight on location” that’s more a documentary about the film than the locations (too bad!), deleted scenes, a section on Manzanar, the interment camp to which the movie’s victims were sent, and of course the trailer, etc.

Snow Falling on Cedars, from Universal Home Video
128 minutes, Widescreen (2.35:1), Dolby Digital
Starring Ethan Hawke, James Cromwell, Richard Jinkins, Youki Kudoh
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Harry J. Ufland, Ron Bass
Written by Ron Bass and Scott Hicks Directed by Scott Hicks


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Updated May 13, 2006