Snow Falling On Cedars

on December 22, 1999 by Wade Major
   If "Shine" left any lingering doubt as to Scott Hicks' storytelling skills, the Australian director's big-budget follow-up, the long-awaited adaptation of David Guterson's best-selling historical novel "Snow Falling on Cedars," should permanently erase them. Provocative, lyrical and stirringly emotional, "Snow Falling on Cedars" triumphs on nearly every level, almost daring Oscar voters to overlook its achievement.
   Tapping an especially raw and timely social nerve with its post-World War II-era tale of racial intolerance in the American northwest, the story centers on the trial of a Japanese-American man named Kazuo (Rick Yune), who stands accused of murdering a well-liked young white man in the waters off the Washington State island where their respective communities once lived happily side-by-side. Sadly, post-war mistrust has poisoned the island's race relations to the point that Kazuo's prospects will become hopelessly dim unless he can garner the support of fair-minded local newspaperman, Ishmael (Ethan Hawke). Just how much fairness Ishmael can be expected to impart, however, depends upon his ability and willingness to cast aside his emotions for the only woman he has ever loved--Kazuo's wife Hatsue (Youki Kudoh).
   Though ostensibly a courtroom drama of the "To Kill a Mockingbird" variety, "Snow Falling on Cedars" aims at spinning a much broader tapestry, offering a commentary not just on race relations, but on human relations. Working from a script originally adapted by Ron Bass, Hicks allows his story to unfold primarily through extended flashbacks, returning to the courtroom only when needed to stitch together the story's complex network of subplots. Careful not to let his characters succumb to melodramatic excess, Hicks substitutes visuals for words wherever possible, letting the film carry on, at one stage, for nearly 20 minutes without so much as a single utterance.
   All of this spells especially welcome news for Universal Pictures who, even at this premature stage, looks to have its strongest Oscar candidate since "Schindler's List." Nominations in major and technical categories seem all but assured, with Hicks, Kudoh, composer James Newton Howard, cinematographer Robert Richardson and supporting actor Max von Sydow (as Kazuo's attorney) the most obvious early candidates.
   Should the film fail to garner its deserved critical plaudits, however, commercial prospects would become less certain. Stories even marginally concerned with Asian and Asian-American themes have traditionally struggled at the boxoffice, and "Snow Falling On Cedars" could easily run into the same roadblocks that have derailed comparably deserving films, making it all but impossible to reach the very audiences that most need to hear its message. With luck, marketing and some help from the critical community, however, Universal will be able to buck the trend. Starring Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard, James Cromwell, Max von Sydow and Rick Yune. Directed by Scott Hicks. Written by Ron Bass and Scott Hicks. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Ron Bass and Harry J. Ufland. A Universal release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for disturbing war images, sensuality and brief strong language. Running time: 127 min
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