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by: James Berardinelli

Scott Hicks' Snow Falling on Cedars, based on the best-selling novel by David Guterson, is one of the most anticipated releases of the Christmas season. Seeking to do justice to the book's complexity, the director employs a non-linear, multi-layered structure that is characterized by flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Events are presented non-chronologically, with frequent, repeated jumps through time to flesh out the characters' backgrounds and reveal the truth of the mystery that lies at the film's core. This is apparently an approach that Hicks feels comfortable with -- he used something similar (albeit less convoluted) in his previous movie, Shine. Despite the intricacy of the structure, it's not difficult to follow the progression of events. Changes in actors (characters as children versus adults), hairstyles, lighting, and weather all serve to tip us off about which era any particular scene is transpiring in.

The movie is framed as a courtroom mystery in the Pacific Northwest during the early 1950s, with a local Japanese fisherman named Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) being tried for the murder of another man, Carl Heine (Eric Thal). One foggy night, while Carl was out on his boat, the Susan Marie, something happened. (Only at the end of the movie do we discover what.) The next morning, he was found dead, tangled in his own fishing nets with a nasty gash on his head. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), a reporter for the local newspaper, watches impassively as events unfold in the courtroom. Gradually, we learn that Ishmael's first and only true love is Hatsue (Youki Kodoh), the wife of the man on trial. As he begins to research background information, he discovers facts that neither the prosecutor (James Rebhorn) nor the defense attorney (Max von Sydow) are bringing out in court. But the bitterness he feels towards Hatsue for inexplicably ending their relationship years ago keeps him silent. At the same time, memories his dead father, Arthur (Sam Shepard), one of the most respected men in the community and a pillar of integrity, haunt his thoughts.

Snow Falling on Cedars addresses one of the darkest aspects of 20th century American domestic policy - the internment of thousands of Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during the 1940s. After Pearl Harbor, paranoia was high, and anyone who even appeared Japanese became a target. Without adopting a didactic tone, and by setting many of the flashbacks in and around the Japanese American community during the war years, this movie illustrates not only the broad spectrum of obvious rights violations that occurred in this time, but some of the more insidious ones as well (such as when Federal agents collected religious symbols from Japanese American households). Many of the scenes depicting men and women being herded into the camps are intentionally framed to evoke images of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews in Europe at the same time.

Hicks' movie offers a stirring look at both broad political issues and the smaller ones that determine each individual's code of ethics. However, Snow Falling on Cedars is not without a few minor missteps. The dialogue occasionally goes over the top (as when Max von Sydow pompously states, "Accident rules every courtroom in the universe, except maybe the chambers of the human heart"). Hicks also goes overboard in the sound mixing department, often utilizing a sort of echo-effect where lines of dialogue overlap as they are repeated several times in a row. If employed sparingly, this could have been an effective device. Overused, it becomes irritating.

Visually, the film is nothing short of stunning. The outdoor snowscape scenes are examples of cold, breathtaking beauty. Of recent films, only The Ice Storm, Fargo, and A Simple Plan have been as effective in developing icy, snowy weather into such a tangible aspect of the motion picture experience.

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