Snow Falling on Cedars
Screenplay : Ron Bass and Scott Hicks (based on the novel by David Guterson)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Ethan Hawke (Ishmael Chambers), James Cromwell (Judge Fielding), Richard Jenkins (Sheriff Art Moran), James Rebhorn (Alvin Hooks), Sam Shepard (Arthur Chambers), Eric Thal (Carl Heine Jr.), Zeljko Ivanek (Dr. Whitman), Max von Sydow (Nels Gudmundsson), Youki Kudoh (Hatsue Miyamoto), Rick Yune (Kazuo Miyamoto)
For a film that features not only a doomed romance between members of different races, but also a courtroom murder-mystery that relies on last minute evidence to decide its outcome, "Snow Falling on Cedars" is strangely uncompelling. This is, after all, a film with great pedigree: it was directed by "Shine" virtuoso Scott Hicks, written by Hicks and veteran screenwriter Ron Bass from a much-lauded, best-selling novel, and stars a wonderfully diverse cast of notable actors, including Ethan Hawke, James Cromwell, Sam Shepard, and even Max von Sydow.
And yet, somehow the film never comes together with any kind of dramatic urgency. Individual aspects of the film are notable, but they never coalesce. The film is visually intriguing, but it never manages to transcend that visual extravagance with anything resembling emotional power. In fact, it almost emotionally vacant, and most of the dialogue is given to long, self-aware speeches about the elusive nature of love and the need to fight prejudice.
The main story takes place in 1950 on San Piedro, a fictitious island north of Puget Sound. The island has a high population of Japanese immigrants, and the tensions from World War II still linger in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The Japanese are wary of the Caucasians because the harsh memories of being forced from their homes by government officials and interred in camps during the war is still fresh in their minds. The Caucasians are still wary of the Japanese because the fear and suspicion roused by the war (specifically the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor) is still fresh in their minds.
The film centers around a trial in which an American-born Japanese man, Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), is accused of murdering a local fisherman. Kazuo is under suspicion for numerous reasons, the most important being the fact that the victim had bought seven acres of land that used to belong to Kazuo's family, but was sold while they were locked in an internment camp.
The trial is being covered by Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), the young editor of the island's lone newspaper,who is trying despertaely to live up to his father (Sam Shepard), who was something of a hero to the Japanese residents of the island because he took a stand against their being scapegoated during the war. Ishmael is compromised by the fact that, as a teenager, he had had a passionate affair with Kazuo's wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh). Their relationship was secretive, taking place mostly in the forest outside of town because both Ishmael and Hatsue knew their respective families would not approve of their love.
So, the film sets up a twofold narrative, one concentrated on the murder-mystery and its subsequent trial set in the present, and the other composed mostly of various flashbacks that tell the tale of Ishmael and Hatsue's doomed relationship, her experience being locked in an internment camp, and his experience fighting in World War II.
Hicks and Bass should be commended for structuring the complex, nonlinear narratives in such a way that they are easy to follow, despite covering numerous years and a variety of characters. However, their fundamental failure is in the relationship between Ishmael and Hatsue as teenager. Specifically, their failure is in creating a true, moving portrait of two people in love. We get a great deal of delicate camerawork and swooning music devoted to scenes of them playing together as preteens and sharing an awkward first kiss, and then intense, shadowy sequences depicting them making love inside a large, hollow cedar tree and whispering hushed assurances to each other.
But, what we never see is the two of them actually having a conversation. They never talk or converse or share any real words that would give us a window into their intimate emotional involvement. There is little interaction between the two of them outside of the strictly physical, and what we are left with is a beautifully shot series of cinematic postcards that are supposed to stand in for an obsessive relationship. By the end of the film, we are supposed to believe that Ishmael, even years later, is so obsessed with his love for Hatsue, that he would withhold vital evidence he has obtained that might free her husband. Because Hicks and Bass never create a convincingly intense relationship in the first place, the later plot developments seem hollow and somewhat unbelievable.
The film also suffers because Hicks, who is a naturally gifted filmmaker but was obviously too high on his success with "Shine" (1996), indulges his art-house pretensions to their fullest. In "Snow Falling on Cedars," what we end up with is a lot of stylistic nonsense that looks good, but doesn't serve much purpose (Hicks' obsession with water imagery is taken to the extreme). He also relies far too heavily on James Newton Howard's musical score, which is brought to thundering climaxes at the drop of the hat (the most ridiculous being a scene where he juxtaposing scenes of Ishmael fighting the war with scenes of he and Hatsue as preteens on the beach holding up a dead fish).
"Snow Falling on Cedars" is certainly a beautiful film to watch--for its first hour, at least. At that point, it becomes evident that cinematographer Robert Richardson ("The Horse Whisperer") shot the entire film in one of two color schemes: amber for everything indoors and gray for everything outdoors (even in a scene that takes place in a strawberry patch, which introduces the previously unseen color red, there is still a large, gray barn in the background that dominates the shot). After all, one can only see so many amber-hued close-ups of haunted faces and grayish long shots of snow falling on cedar trees before the visuals lose their original impact and become a bit tiresome.
©2000 James Kendrick