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Movie Review

A dead fisherman, a disputed land deal and anti-Japanese sentiment fuel this courtroom drama set on a fictional island in the Pacific Northwest. [Warning, plot points revealed.] In the winter of 1950, a Japanese man stands accused of murdering a white man over land sold out from under his family. It just so happens that the defendant's wife, Hatsue, was the childhood friend and first love of young Ishmael Chambers. Chambers is the son of a compassionate newspaperman still bitter that the only woman he ever really cared for went on to marry another man after being seized from him by a post-Pearl Harbor climate of racial fear and paranoia. Ishmael's love for Hatsue is tested when his own investigation turns up some new evidence that could shed light on the case.

Positive Elements: This cinematic translation of David Guterson's best-selling novel raises important issues involving racial prejudice. It focuses on the unfair treatment of Japanese-Americans unfortunate enough to have lived in the United States when their ancestral homeland bombed Pearl Harbor. And that tension isn't totally one-sided. Even before that fateful December day, Hatsue's mother warns her to "stay away from white boys" and marry a Japanese husband. Ishmael's journalist dad goes out of his way to project the humanity of his Asian neighbors, acting so sympathetically at one point that his son complains, "That's not journalism. That's propaganda." When a bigoted woman takes advantage of a Japanese family within the bounds of the law, it presents an argument for grace—the moral imperative to act decently even when you don't have to. In a discussion of human nature and redemption, a lawyer tells Ishmael, "It takes a turning point to free someone up of any obsession, be it hate, prejudice or love." Elsewhere, a man's death is treated with respect and great consequence as the sheriff must inform the widow that her husband—and the father of their young children—won't be coming home (a subtle, yet powerful statement about the preciousness of human life and how the loss of it impacts others). Ishmael and Hatsue's forbidden puppy love leads to a first kiss, which leads to preadolescent passions that, fortunately, go no further. Still, the bond that results from even that much intimacy illustrates how physical affection raises the emotional stakes in a relationship. The legal system goes under the microscope when characters debate the fairness of the trial (Hatsue states, "Trials are not only about truth, even though they should be"). That leads to broader issues of people being treated fairly, romantic, business and other kinds of relationships. Sensing Ishmael's resistance to growing up in the shadow of his father's nobly lofty reputation, the young man's mother points out to him, "It's not such a terrible thing being your father's son." She also reminds a pining Ishmael that his childhood crush now has a husband, reinforcing the sanctity and permanence of marriage. Even mature themes are handled tactfully.

Spiritual Content: A small statue of Buddha is among the items confiscated from a humble Japanese family.

Sexual Content: A preadolescent boy and girl share first kisses and, as they grow a bit older, more passionate petting. Years later, in a farewell letter to Ishmael, Hatsue speaks of their "bodies moving against each other" feeling wrong, though it is implied that the two never actually had sex. Hatsue and her husband are shown in bed on their wedding night with a brief upper-body shot of the pair consummating their commitment. The audience shares a widow's recollection of the last morning spent with her husband as the pair embrace intimately in the shower (activity and any nudity is distorted through glass door).

Violent Content: Flashbacks to war are implicitly violent, though not gratuitously so, without glamorizing battle. A Japanese-American soldier tosses a grenade into a German machine-gun nest, then fires several rounds inside. Ishmael loses an arm while storming a beach (the gruesome severed limb is handed across an operating table). He also recalls frantic exchanges of gunfire, and the surf being littered with the bodies of fallen troops (the scene is bloodless and not gory). A drowned man's pale body gets snagged in a fishing net and pulled up by authorities.

Crude or Profane Language: You can count the profanities on one hand, but a shell-shocked Ishmael utters a pointlessly offensive phrase that includes a racial slur, nasty slang for a woman and the f-word. Innocent Japanese-Americans are demeaned with the racial slur "Japs."

Drug and Alcohol Content: None

Summary: If not for one egregiously offensive and pointless phrase, Snow Falling on Cedars would be worthy of high praise for mature audiences. It's almost as if director/co-screenwriter Scott Hicks so feared a PG rating that he rallied his colleagues to find out what would earn them a PG-13—a brand likely to attract a more adult crowd to the box office and garner greater respect come Oscar time. I can almost hear the conversation: "This is a serious work of art, not light family entertainment. I don't want to be lumped in with Iron Giant and Stuart Little. What can we do to lose the PG?" "How 'bout adding an f-word?" "But there's hardly any profanity in this entire movie. Wouldn't an f-word seem out of place?" "Who cares? It'll guarantee us a PG-13 and give us the credibility we want with older audiences." "Won't it seem out of character?" "Not if we stick it in a flashback right after Ishmael loses his arm on the battlefield. He's delusional, not in his right mind. Who can blame the guy for venting verbally?" And it was done. They turned a beautifully photographed, brilliantly cast, smartly acted, well-told story into a movie demanding the disclaimer, "It was great except for . . ." Really disappointing considering the film's wealth of positive content. When Snow Falling on Cedars is eventually edited for television, it's definitely worth a look.

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Ethan Hawke as Ishmael Chambers; Youki Kudoh as Hatsue Miyamoto; also featuring Max Von Sydow, James Rebhorn, James Cromwell, Sam Shepard and Rick Yune


Scott Hicks ( )


Universal Pictures



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Bob Smithouser

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