Universal // 1999 // 128 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 17th, 2000
First loves last forever.
Snow Falling On Cedars is a film adaptation of the David Guterson novel and moves back and forth in time over a period centered on by World War II. The film is a series of mysteries slowly uncovered amidst the backdrop of a dark chapter in our nation's history: the internment of Japanese-Americans after the beginning of the war. Prejudice, race, love, war, tragedy, and dilemmas of the heart and soul are all major themes in the story. Beyond a powerful and moving screenplay and riveting performances is the Oscar nominated cinematography and perhaps the hardest editing job for a film to date. Director and co-writer Scott Hicks shows his mastery of his craft with this intricately shot film and proves that Shine was no fluke. Universal is now releasing this near-masterpiece on DVD with another special non-special edition. A winning transfer, fine soundtrack, and high quality extras make this a disc worthy of purchase by any lovers of fine drama.
Snow Falling On Cedars is a richly textured film that operates on several levels, often at the same time. The film is set in a small Washington state town on a fictional island north of Puget Sound. It is primarily told from the eyes of Ishmael Chambers, the son of the town newspaperman who as a youth befriends and later falls in love with Hatsue, a young Japanese girl. The two grow up together but have to keep their relationship a secret, as the prejudices on both sides of the racial barrier would not tolerate their love. Scenes of their childhood are told in flashback, which flits back and forth with present day with the frequency of the flash of memory. Their relationship ended when the Japanese of the town were rounded up and sent to the Manzanar internment camp shortly after Pearl Harbor. Hatsue goes on to marry Kazuo Miyamoto in the camp, who fights in the war against the Germans while Ishmael is fighting the Japanese, losing an arm in the process.
The present-day mystery to be unfolded bit by bit is of murder, when a childhood friend of Kazuo's is killed and all surface evidence points to him as the killer. Set nine years after the war began, the courtroom drama portion of the film shows that racial prejudice has not died in San Piedro, the town of the story. As Ishmael, now the town newspaperman after his father's death, covers the trial he is torn between his desire to see justice done and his continuing obsession with Hatsue.
As I said, the time frame moves back and forth throughout the film. What I didn't say was how frequently it does so. Any shot, at any time could be from the perspective of one of the main characters memories, and the scene moves from flashback to present day seamlessly. This film makes you pay attention, as nothing is linear. This is what I meant by the difficulty of the editing. I think the editing is perhaps the strongest part of the film, and a major part of the way the story is told. I'll wager editor Hank Corwin will use this on his résumé and deservedly so.
There is much more to this story than a tragic romance and a courtroom drama. There are layers upon layers to the tale as you move from the town and its attitude toward the sizable Japanese population, to the war on both sides of the globe, then to the internment camp and back to the trial and the events which cause it to come about. I promise that a subsequent viewing will reveal much that was missed at first look.
The performances and cast will likely make you want to take that second look. Ethan Hawke (Dead Poets Society, Gattaca, Great Expectations) plays Ishmael with a great deal of restraint, yet his emotions are well evident by his body language and expression. His emotions are laid bare, but only for the observant. Hatsue is played by Japanese singing sensation Youki Kudoh (Heaven's Burning) who brings her character's pragmatism and conflicting emotions to the fore with professional ease. Her eyes tell a story in themselves, and it wasn't hard to see how Ishmael could fall in love with her. The supporting cast is sensational. Of particular note is Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, Conan the Barbarian, The Exorcist) as Nels Gudmundsson, the lawyer defending Kazuo in the trial. It is amazing that even at his age he is still playing characters older than himself. The elderly lawyer is also a philosopher and brings both with a wit and warmth that is truly touching. His courtroom scenes, particularly his closing summation, are pure magic and perhaps among the best such scenes in any film. James Rebhorn (Scent of a Woman, Sarah, Plain and Tall, Independence Day) provides a near villainous role as the prosecutor playing the race card with determination and menace. Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff, The Pelican Brief, Days of Heaven) plays Ishmael's father who seems alone in taking a stand against the prejudice shown by the town after the beginning of the war, and is pure gold in every moment he is on the screen. Space doesn't permit me to wax on further about several other members of the supporting cast who all did their jobs with great skill and strength.
Director Scott Hicks and his cinematographer, Robert Richardson, use location and weather to develop the story; trees and snow, rain and lowering skies, wetness, cold, and shadows become characters in the film. Rarely has the sense of place been so evoked as part of a narrative. Of course that place shifts with the film from the forest to town to overseas to ocean but each setting provides that strong sense of belonging. From a wide screen they choose to move from long open shots in the deep cedar forest to closed in shots done in a keyhole style. Often there is something in the foreground between the character and what he is looking at, which gives a sense of texture to every shot. The Oscar nomination for the cinematography was well deserved from that standpoint alone, but it certainly doesn't stop there. The use of fog and snow to obscure mysteries from open view is exaggerated by the intentionally desaturated color. Much of the film stock was developed using the bleach bypass process to enhance blacks and give silvery whites, at the cost of color saturation between those two ends of the scale. Colors move from normal saturation and depth in some scenes to near black and white in others. Even when the color is intentionally drained the resulting picture is evocative and stunning. Truly the film is a feast for the eyes.
Fortunately Universal was at the helm when it came to bringing the great demands of this picture to a digital transfer. This 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is first rate. The level of detail is stunning, especially considering the task it must have been to make so many fog and snow enshrouded scenes look right without artifact or pixelization. It would have been very easy for the picture to break up under such conditions. Colors are always balanced even when they are desaturated. Shadow detail is excellent even when conditions make it difficult. Contrast and brightness are intentionally manipulated as well to give a sometimes bleak look to the landscape; another authoring nightmare, but again the transfer passes the test in accurately recreating the film experience.
An impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack augments the stunning video. The score by James Newton Howard is airy and sometimes wrenching in emotion. The score is given star treatment by the soundtrack, with surrounds bringing a width and depth to the soundstage that offers a front row seat to the performance. Other than the score the surrounds provide ambient sound as the front carries the main job of accurately recreating a demanding soundtrack from the film itself. Dialogue is clearly understood except when the director doesn't want you to understand. I'll get into that in a moment.
Usually Universal has been including both a Dolby Digital and a DTS soundtrack on their new day and date releases, but this time they did not and I'm glad. I'm sure the reason was the presence of a DTS track would have meant we couldn't get the great list of extras that are provided. First up is Universal's "Spotlight on Location" which graces every day and date release; in this case, a 21 minute look at the process of taking the novel and turning it into a movie. Plenty of interviews with cast and filmmakers make this a fine feature, rather than some "making of" ones that mostly show clips from the film. Then there is the feature length commentary track with director and co-writer Scott Hicks, which is a wealth of information on what his intent was with nearly every shot and for the film itself. Then there are over 20 minutes of deleted scenes, some of which are alternate takes on scenes in the film as well as ones that didn't make the final cut. Text screens about Manzanar and the whole process of displacing Japanese American citizens come next, highlighting a dark chapter in American history that the film also speaks out about. The theatrical trailer is next, and I was truly surprised. I don't often talk about the quality of trailers but there are two things to note here. First off the aspect ratio for the trailer is 1.85:1 while the film is 2.35:1, and gone is the desaturated color in the trailer. I was amazed at seeing the color in scenes that didn't have it in the film. Production notes, thorough cast and crew biographies and filmographies, a bonus trailer for Rocky and Bullwinkle, and the usual web-links round out the extras.
I called the film a near-masterpiece. That means there were some flaws. Biggest on my list is the choice to further muddy the waters of understanding in some scenes with overlapping dialogue. It was hard enough to follow the story when any shot at any second might be memory or even fantasy but when the past and present overlap within the same shot with sound it went to far in my opinion. Along that same track was the choice to have a fantasy sequence where Ishmael sees himself and Hatsue as children along the same beach he was at during the war. Now we have more than one time frame in the same shot, which was unnecessarily difficult to read. This fantasy sequence, along with the overlapping dialogue in some places went past inventive and into gratuitous in my opinion.
My other main complaint was that Kazuo was never developed as a character. He is certainly an integral part of the story but his job is mainly to sit in the defendant's chair; only rarely adding anything else to the plot. The deleted scenes clearly showed where his character went; straight to the cutting room floor. Even with those scenes you never learn too much of depth about him, certainly not why Hatsue ended up marrying him. Apparently it was decided that this was the story of Hatsue and Ishmael and the actual husband was extraneous. I would have preferred to know more.
This is less of a complaint than it is a preference: I liked the look of the trailer more than the film itself. Considering the closeness and intimacy of so many shots I think the 1.85:1 aspect ratio might have served better, and the presence of well saturated color brought the scenes I saw to life. Certainly the bleak and desaturated look was a choice and remains stunning, but I liked the look of the greens of the forest and the other colors even more.
This disc is surely worth at least a rental to anyone who enjoys dramatic film. The inventiveness, cinematography, and great production values warrant a look by themselves. Take the time to really watch the film, maybe more than once, and you will find how deep the story goes and the many levels it works on. I highly recommend this disc, though I do caution you that it's not an easy watch and forget type of movie; it demands time and attention. The extras will keep you busy for quite a while too. A recommended purchase.
All involved with the disc and the film are acquitted without fail, though I hope Scott Hicks' next project is a bit less esoteric than this was. Universal comes through again.
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Spotlight on Location
* Commentary Track
* Deleted Scenes
* Manzanar History Text
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Info
* DVD-ROM Content