Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Ethan Hawke plays a reporter covering the trial of the man who married Hawke's childhood sweetheart and only true love. The man on trial and the wife/sweetheart are both Japanese-Americans who were interned in WW2. If the man is convicted, Hawke may be able to reclaim his true love, but Hawke has to find the courage to expose the truth, even if it leads down a path that will release the accused back to his wife's arms, thereby causing Hawke to lose her forever.

The movie doesn't really preach about the WW2 internment camps, but their existence is a palpable presence in the film. For those of you unaware of what I'm talking about, here's the deal. In a shameful stain on the pages of American history, Japanese Americans on the West Coast were herded into detention camps in WW2, often losing all their property, except what they could carry with them. It would have been unthinkable to do this with Italian-Americans or German-Americans, but the Japanese were the misunderstood outsiders in a Eurocentric society.Although the American parallel obviously fell far short of the National Socialist extremes, European-Americans often failed to see the obvious parallels between this and the German treatment of misunderstood minorities.

Although it came from a best-selling book, Snow Falling bombed at the box office. The majority of critics panned it. Most critics found it plodding, too arty, tedious, and excessively complex. It was deservedly nominated by the Academy and several lesser award groups for "Best Cinematography", but received little other recognition. Despite those immutable negatives, Snow Falling on Cedars is one helluva good movie, made from one helluva good and complex book, and it features a brilliant secondary performance by Max von Sydow as an immigrant lawyer who challenges Americans on the jury to be worthy of the country that he struggled so hard to enter, and appreciates so much more than they. Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli both liked this film a lot, scoring it three and a half stars, but they and I were about the only three people in the universe that thought it was that good.

Director Scott Hicks (who also did "Shine") is a good filmmaker, and my heart goes out to him, because he now is unfairly saddled with the burden of having turned a best selling novel into a losing movie. I guess the film's popularity must have suffered from a consciously intricate structure. The director tells the story non-chronologically, with flashbacks within flashbacks, and you have to pay attention. It's part mystery, part love story, part history lesson, part civics course, and while it isn't really heavy-handed, it is a very intelligent movie which presents an unsentimental look at a shameful part of America's past.  In other words, it is perhaps not the kind of simple feel-good film that scores big at the holiday box office.

Note: This reviewer makes a very good point about how some improper casting for this film actually an example of the very racism that the story was meant to dispel. This point did not dawn on me when I watched the film, but he has convinced me that he is correct.


DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1. A beautiful visual transfer of a beautifully photographed film.

  • Full-length director commentary

  • Making-of featurette

  • Featurette on internment camps

  • Deleted scenes

  • The usual bios, trailers, tv ads, and a music video



No nudity. The film is rated PG.

The Critics Vote

  • General super-panel consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.6.
  • With their dollars ... pretty much of a massive flop. Since it was based on a best-selling novel, it received a $36 million budget, but it became evident that it was not a wide-release kind of picture, so it made it to only 1150 screens, and drew only $14 million at the domestic box.

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