"Snow Falling on Cedars"
By Eric Renderking Fisk, Rindge NH | Originally posted On The Indy Experience in 2003, Revised July 2007
Two weeks ago I wrote the review for DUNE, and I ended the article with the statement that the original novel written by Frank Herbert should be ranked up there with the other classics; Harper Lee’s "To Catch a Mockingbird," George Orwell’s "1984," and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby." Of course that’s not the real title to the Harper Lee classic, but a line of one of my favorite jokes… “Did you know the Politically Correct Police are now changing the offensive titles of classic books, starting with “To Catch a Mockingbird”. The joke comes around full circle with the review of Snow Falling on Cedars. (Few people caught the obscure reference to a bad joke... sorry.)
The multi-layered plot of Cedars, the movie and the book of the same name, is a far more adult and contemporary version of the Harper Lee classic with many similarities.
A crippled arm in both Mockingbird and Cedars are metaphors for the unfairness of life and how we are unarmed in the fight against it... but typing anymore could ruin a revelation in this movie and the eventual ending... "Mockingbird" and "Cedars" share the theme of offspring living in the shadow of a living legend of a father who always does "The Right Thing..." Both stories take place in an idealized version of home towns and tight-knit communities that could have been taken right out of the paintings of Norman Rockwell, but are ripped apart and devided by criminal cases that deal with social taboos and inter-racial relationships.
"...Mockingbird" and "...Cedars" uses a court room drama to focus a magnifying glass on society’s issue with race. Mockingbird's courtroom drama was about a black man with a crippled arm falsely accused of raping a white girl. "Cedar's" trial has Japanese-American former soldier facing the charge of murdering a German-American fisherman. That “Jap” army lieutenant Kazuo Miyamoto, stoic and reserved while showing occasional warmth played by Rick Yune is an American hero that still faces the charge of being somewhat guilty of what happened nine years earlier… the attack on Pearl Harbor. His only real “crime” is being a member of the same race that the pilots were who attacked the naval fleet in Hawaii.
Snow Falling on Cedars is more gritty and intense then "Mockingbird" while ironically taking place on a picturesque island off the coast of Washington State. Cedars also crosses more taboos then Mockingbird with one of the many plot threads being a forbidden love affair. The love affair involves the main characters Ishmael Chambers, played with melancholy brilliance by Ethan Hawke, and his Japanese high school sweetheart and the wife of the accused, Hatsue Miyamoto, portrayed with quiet elegance by Youki Kudoh. It’s a "Titanic" type of affair; each from different sides of the tracks; but doesn’t end on a warm touchy-feely way but with some bitter feelings of abandonment and betrayal left all but resolved.
The two grow up together in a society that seems to be color and race blind, until the events of World War II rip the two apart. These events prove not that absence makes the heart grows fonder but makes the heart go wander for Hatsue in an internment camp, while causing Ishmael to fight valiantly in the military. He does well in battle until his heart suddenly breaks with the arrival of a letter from Hatsue. Her letter to Ishmael costs him more then just life or limb, but a part of his soul and is the source of his obsession for all things from his past. It is years of continuing bitterness after the war that may or may not cause our hero to do the right thing when he uncovers what really happens the night of the alleged murder.
Fans of the "Indiana Jones" movies will discover that "Cedars" has more in common with Last Crusade then Mockingbird in the “Father Figure” department. Atticus Finch in Mockingbird (Oscar caliber performance by the star of an earlier flick, "The Omen’s" Gregory Peck) is a father figure loved and adored by the society and one that Scout and her brother strive to be more like. Chambers’s father, Arthur, casts a shadow that Ishmael works so hard to crawl out from under... "Arthur" is a 'just and fair king' among men who's
There's also an abundant amount of metaphors here - Arthur is a just and fair king among men who's Excalibur sword is the written word, while Ishmael is lost in a sea of emotions, two literary salutes to "Knights Of The Round Table" and "Moby Dick," respectfully.
This movie also shows how a good journalist can be a hero, playing both the roll of a detective and story teller trying to get to the bottom of what really happened when an "Open Book" and the case seems all but closed proves to be something else
Much of this movie is a meticulous investigation of a mystery with the search for clues during one of the most intense blizzards of the island's history, as if the author David Guterson stops channeling “Harper Lee” for a few pages and summons the essence of the spirits of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hamlet.
There are moments that will remind mystery fans of scenes that feature of our favorite detectives uncovering clues that unravel and solve the case. We see the expression on Hawke’s face that indicated that he knows what happened the night the alleged murder. The clues on what happened during fateful night at sea are hidden in the Coast Guard documents and observations at the lighthouse, they means something to Chambers – and Hawke’s is able to convey satisfaction in solving the case while at the same frustration that the woman he still loves will stay married to a man who should (and will) eventually be freed. For any other actor, this scene would be overwhelming and cause lesser actors to over-act, but Ethan Hawke plays the scene wonderfully. It’s too bad we couldn’t see his character again in future films.
There are also some serious action scenes: flashbacks of the war where both Chambers and Miyamoto fight in separate theaters of the war with almost Saving Private Ryan intensity to keep the movie from being a 2 hour and 20 minute mood poem. "Snow Falling On Cedars" is a love story and a period drama that respectfully assumes the viewer is well versed and literate and uses symbolism and metaphors to tell a much deeper story then the time would other wise allow. This movie isn’t for the faint of heart, nor is it a blockbuster. But Cedars is so perfectly filmed, perfectly catching the life and atmosphere of living up north, capturing the essence of a wintry twilight between afternoon or evening when the snow is knee deep and the roads are impassable. It’s also another “Slice of Life” movie that illustrates what happened in America around the time of World War II and is essential for every Vintage Aficionado and history enthusiast for that period... and for those reasons "Snow Falling On Cedars" is an essential Fedora Chronicles Motion Picture.