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IN SHORT: Possibly the best of the year. [Rated PG-13, 129 minutes]
At this time of year, adaptations of best selling novel could easily run to the three hour mark, to establish "importance" and credentials for an Academy Award nomination. Director Scott Hicks, who last delivered the most excellent Shine, and co-writer Ron Bass chose not to go that route, finding the emotional core of every subplot in David Guterson's novel "Snow Falling On Cedars" and compacting it into a very watchable two hours plus credits.
Every story is a love story, the screenwriting teachers taught us back in film school. So is Snow Falling On Cedars. Set on the fictional San Pedro Island, in Washington State's Puget Sound, where Japanese immigrants tend berry farms for native born landowners the story begins at the tail end of the 1930s, as a boy and a girl fall in love. Ishmael (Ethan Hawke) and Hatsue (Youki Kudoh) are both are American born, but she is of Japanese descent and the parental pressure to stay culturally pure is strong. Knowing of her parent's objection to any serious relationship, the pair meet in the roots of a gigantic cedar tree. When a proposal of marriage is offered, it is turned down. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurs and the kidlets grow up way too quickly. One goes to war. One goes to an internment camp. Even after V-J Day, anti-Japanese anger on San Pedro Island runs deep.
After the War, Ishmael inherits his father's mantle as a newspaper publisher and reporter. Hatsue marries fisherman Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a well decorated American war hero. After the mysterious death of a much paler fellow trawler, found drowned in his own nets after a particularly foggy evening, Kazuo is arrested for murder. A small amount of evidence places the man on the scene, but he doesn't trust the non-Japanese enough to tell his full story. A land deal gone bad is uncovered that links the men, so there's motive for revenge and murder ... all the elements of a great mystery and greater trial.
Oh, I forgot to mention that Ishmael has uncovered evidence that may set the hero free. The emotional river still runs deep in the now grown kidlet. To do the right thing means losing the girl forever. To do otherwise brings the satisfaction of hurting the one person who hurt him worse than anyone in his life; or perhaps, once the husband is out of the picture, could return the girl to his arms. Oh, the temptation.
A great set of stories is percolating here, folks. In addition to the love story, subplots involving racism, greed, and a moderate position taken in the newspaper published by Ishmael's father Arthur (Sam Shepard) seen as Pro-Japanese, fill the bill. While Hicks' use of sound or picture montages to show the passage of time sometimes get in the way, for the most part these stories, which span more than a decade of time play out cleanly. Any instinct to hype up the racial hatred aspects of the case are downplayed by the Australian Hicks, underplayed (yet always expressed) by the cast and dismissed within the story by a stern "not in my courtroom you don't" attitude of Judge Fielding (James Cromwell). Good stuff all around.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Snow Falling On Cedars, he would have paid...
Darn fine film making.
28 Weeks Later
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