Snow Falling on Cedars
2000, PG-13, 126 min. Directed by Scott Hicks. Starring Ethan Hawke, Rick Yune, Max Von Sydow, Sam Shepard, James Rebhorn, Richard Jenkins, Youki Kudoh, James Cromwell.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 14, 2000
If snow falls on cedars and no one's in the forest to hear it fall, does it make any sound? At the risk of sounding glib, the question's faux Zen formula is meant to encourage the kind of contemplative composure that might provide the best path of entry into this film adaptation of David Guterson's bestselling novel. The movie functions more as a tone poem than a rollicking narrative as it twists memory, desire, regret, and history into a blue-gray skein of quietude and muffled action. The movie is dense with atmosphere, and the atmosphere is dense with chilly scenes of winter. Mood is paramount in this picture, and it can be said that the movie achieves its goal. Despite this success, however, Snow Falling on Cedars fails to completely engage the viewer at the basic level of story. Told in a flashback structure, there are sometimes memories within flashbacks and multiple recollections going on at once. To the filmmakers' credit, the flashbacks are never confusing and might even be accurate reflections of how our brains work in real life. Yet, by their elaborate grandeur, they intimate that there is more to the story than meets the eye, and the truth is that when you add up all the elements the total is less than meets the eye. Set in the post-war period on the fictional island of San Piedro in the Puget Sound, Snow Falling on Cedars has a strong sense of place, due in no small measure to the magnificent camerawork of Robert Richardson (Natural Born Killers, Casino, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). From the exterior snow flurries that seem to drain the color from the natural light to the interior “nests” the characters create in order to provide shelter from the storm, the look of the film is always textured and tactile. Hawke plays Ishmael (Guterson seems fond of these literary allusions), a newspaperman whose obsession with a long-ago love provides the key to the story's actions (or, more properly, inactions). His teenage love for the Japanese-American Hatsue (Kudoh) was forbidden by the conventions of the times. The war and the displacement of the Japanese-American internment camps further separated the lovers. Hatsue took her mother's advice and settled down with her “own kind,” but when her husband is arrested for the murder of an island fisherman, Ishmael's sense of the past and his duties as a journalist flutter around him like a mist of blinding snowflakes. Snow Falling on Cedars is the follow-up to documentarian Scott Hicks' first feature narrative, Shine, which brought him to international prominence. With this new film, Hicks has demonstrated an admirable dexterity with impressionistic treatments; what he needs now is to strengthen his skills as a storyteller who can leap beyond the obvious and tell tales that engage the heart as well as the optical nerves.