Release Date(s)1999 (November 5, 2019)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Shout! Factory/Shout Select)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
Based on the best-selling novel by David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars is an ambitious film that weaves three interconnected threads—a courtroom drama, a romance, and a look at racial prejudice.
On fictional San Pedro Island in Washington State in 1950, fisherman Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) is on trial for the murder at sea of Carl Heine (Eric Thal). Heine owned land that would have belonged to Miyamoto’s family if not for the Japanese internment during World War II. Watching the trial is Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), who assumed his late father’s role as owner and editor of the town’s newspaper. Ishmael harbors concerns that he will never measure up to his father (Sam Shepard), who spoke out against the anti-Japanese prejudice in the community. Also in the courtroom is Kazuo’s wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), who had been Ishmael’s childhood sweetheart but obeyed her mother and married “one of her own kind.”
Director Scott Hicks (Shine) uses a series of flashbacks to shift from the present to the past, often in unexpected and creative ways. Rather than use blurred transitions, abrupt cuts, or actors looking off into the distance, Hicks blends past and present in the same shot so that the viewer recognizes immediately that characters are thinking about past events. This dramatic device also allows the viewer to piece together parts of the mystery concerning Heine’s death and the relationship between young Ishmael and Hatsue.
The film is most successful in showing how Japanese families were uprooted from their homes after Pearl Harbor, forced to sell their land at great financial loss, and taken to internment camps. A gripping sequence shows FBI agents coming into a Japanese-American home without a warrant and confiscating property even though its occupants are American citizens. Hicks shows numerous families, carrying what possessions they can, walking through the streets or loaded onto trucks, heading for the ferry that will take them to the mainland for incarceration.
Hawke has very little dialogue. His strength is reacting, his facial expression conveying Ishmael’s brooding, troubled soul and precisely what is on his mind. Still longing for his childhood sweetheart and doubting he will ever have his father’s moral courage, Ishmael lives in the present and the past, the trial reawakening both hurtful and pleasant memories of his childhood relationship with Hatsue.
Ms. Kudoh dominates two of the three major story threads and, like Hawke, is often best in her reactions, as Hatsue and her family are forcibly moved from the only home they’ve known and as she watches her husband’s murder trial.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Max von Sydow plays defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson and has a stand-out scene declaring that humanity is on trial because of the racial prejudice that threatens to overshadow justice. Celia Weston as Carl Heine’s mother is an icy presence as she calmly justifies how her family took unfair advantage of the Miyamotos to buy their land well below market value. Richard Jenkins plays town sheriff Art Moran, who is overwhelmed by the alleged murder at his doorstep and awkwardly conducts an investigation. Well over his head, Art is often flustered and ill-at-ease with his responsibility. James Rebhorn portrays prosecuting attorney Alvin Hooks and James Cromwell is appropriately authoritative as the presiding judge.
Rated PG-13, Snow Falling on Cedars has some fine moments and succeeds in combining the novel’s elements to illustrate how racism can affect lives in real, insidious ways, but could have used some judicious editing since some scenes go on well after their point has been made.
The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p High Definition resolution, is presented in the widescreen format of 2.39:1. Shout Factory’s new 4K transfer and restoration were supervised by cinematographer Robert Richardson. The film has an almost black-and-white look through a process known as bleach bypass, which removes color, increases contrast, leaves more silver in the negative, and makes blacks more velvety. Many indoor scenes are dark, with light focused on faces, obscuring extraneous set features. The opening scene, set at sea, is foggy, with only a light at the masthead glowing through the mist. Because we cannot see clearly, the scene sets up many questions that will be answered as the film unfolds. Snow is a major visual element and several sequences feature picture postcard views. Even in the town, piles of snow line the streets. Vapor emanating from the mouths of characters underscores the bitter cold.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available for the hearing impaired. Sound plays an important role in establishing the film’s atmosphere. On a fog-laden fishing boat, a shadowy figure blows a fog horn repeatedly to announce its presence. The creaking of the boat as it sways in the water adds to the eeriness. Later, rain droplets on the water, seagulls flapping around the fishing boat, and the sound of waves breaking on the shore in flashback scenes provide ambience and a gentle, poetic quality. James Newton Howard’s score is somber, adding to the mood. As the Japanese families trudge in silence to the ferry, a drum beat becomes an ominous foreshadowing of their internment.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary; deleted scenes; Accident Rules, a behind-the-scenes look at the genesis, casting, shooting, and post-production of the film; 2 featurettes; and a theatrical trailer.
Audio Commentary – Director Scott Hicks discusses “things that were going through my head when we were making the film.” The opening was shot on a sound stage with fog machines and water spray creating the illusion of a fishing boat at sea and sets up the first mystery of three. “Nothing is what it first appears to be.” Hicks wanted to make the film about the revelation of truth and the shedding of light. Many shots use light to focus attention and create emphasis. Many transitions were accomplished through lighting. Creating the fictional island from the novel was a challenge. Locations in Washington State, Vancouver, and British Columbia were used. Docks were added to existing buildings on a river in Washington State. Hicks favors shooting through objects to continue the theme of gradual revelation. The trial is more about racism than murder. The challenge of adapting a novel is deciding which stories to tell. He didn’t want to use voice-overs and wanted the audience to piece together the mystery. A lot of screen time is devoted to the violation of the rights of the Japanese-Americans. Hicks praises the cast and singles out the Japanese actors. The beginning and end were shot first. Hicks discusses the difficulty actors faced in filming out of sequence.
Accident Rules – This extensive featurette is divided into four chapters—Adapting the Novel, The Production, The Cast, and Post Production. The novel’s author, David Guterson, comments that the book was based on people of Japanese descent in his community who were interned after Pearl Harbor. Director Scott Hicks wanted to delve into the lives of the characters. He and cinematographer Richard Robertson agreed on the look of the film. Richardson’s input allowed Hicks to spend more time with the actors. The coordination of actors and camera movement was “a beautiful dance.” Black-and-white photographs by famous photographers were consulted to see textures. The “bleach bypass” technique eliminated color and gave the film a monochromatic look. Ethan Hawke was chosen because of his vulnerability and brooding quality. Hicks cast Youki Kudoh, well known in Japan, without auditioning anyone else. Max von Sydow was well prepared, collaborative, and humble—“a dream come true.” Some of the Japanese extras had themselves been removed to internment camps. In editing, the real movie is discovered. Editor Hank Corwin was able to “play with chronology.” Composer James Newton Howard’s score had a “massive impact” on the film. Hicks notes that the critical reaction was mixed. “At the core of the film is an example of American history of which people are not very proud.” This might have had a dampening effect on viewers.
A Fresh Snow – Original cinematographer Robert Richardson discusses the restoration. He attempted to get back to what the original vision of the film was. He compares examples from the first DVD release and the restoration, which creates more of a black-and-white feeling.
Spotlight on Location – The story is told against a dramatic piece of history. The trial is set during a snowstorm that’s inundating the island. Producer Kathleen Kennedy discusses the logistical problems of realizing a fictional location. Numerous locations were used and then blended to appear as one. Film clips are intercut with the interviews.
Deleted Scenes – Ten scenes cut from the final release are included (Kazuo’s first war memory; Nels plays chess with Kazuo; Zenichi, Kazuo’s father, tells him about his family’s honor; burying the sword to hide it from the FBI; Kazuo’s second war memory; Ole Jurgenssen’s testimony; Hooks’ summation, the first cut; the jury deliberates; Ishmael throws away his Purple Heart; and Nels’ summation).
– Dennis Seuling