When a body is dredged up from the shipping channels off Seattle, a murder trial begins that sparks old hatreds and reunites former lovers.
There’s often a very fine line between nationalism and racism and every once in a while a story emerges that reveals this dangerous relationship. Snow Falling on Cedars is one such a novel. Written by David Guterson and published in 1994, the book became an instant best-seller with its tale of a Japanese fisherman demonised by people who once were friends. The plot is a complex one also involving the history of two star-crossed lovers but Australian director Scott Hicks chose to adapt it as his first Hollywood feature after his smash hit Shine.
It’s 1954 and racial tensions between Americans and people of Japanese decent flare up when Kabuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) is accused of murdering fellow fisherman Carl Heine. Max von Sydow plays Miyamoto’s defence attorney and Ethan Hawke is Ishmael Chambers, a Marine Corps veteran now working as a reporter. Ishmael’s liberal father, played by Sam Shepherd, used to publish the local paper and was often accused of sympathising with the Japanese when he was simply reporting the facts. Since his father’s death, Ishmael has taken over the printing press but his bias in this particular case is bitterly skewed because the accused is his former lover’s husband.
Flashing back to happier times, we find young Ishmael courting Hatsue, a beautiful Japanese girl whose family lives on a strawberry farm that they’re in the process of purchasing. The pair consummate their relationship in the hollowed out base of an ancient cedar tree unbeknownst to Hatsue’s mother who warns her to stay away from white boys. But Ishmael is well and truly smitten.
Youki Kudoh plays the older Hatsue who in the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbour in 1941 is shipped off with her family and all the other Japanese Americans to a detention camp in California. When they return after the war they discover that the owner of their farm has reneged on the property sale and has sold it instead to Carl. And when Carl is found drowned in his net, all fingers point to Hatsue’s new husband Kabuo, a man trained by his Kendo master never to show his emotions.
There’s a lot of subtext in this film. Ethan Hawke said that the biggest challenge was all the silence because his character’s emotion is not articulated. But Hicks explains that the movie is more about atmosphere than plot and that the structure is designed to simulate how the mind works when dealing with memories. It was the job of editor Hank Corwin who cut Natural Born Killers, to weave the different time zones together using the beautiful, Oscar-nominated footage of cinematographer Robert Richardson.
This is a film about a small trial in a small place, but as von Sydow’s character says; “humanity, integrity and decency are also on trial”. And it’s that debate, set in the snowy landscape of Washington state, that makes this film worth watching.
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