Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)
Directed by Scott Hicks
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Max Von Sydow, James Rebhorn, Rick Yune, James Cromwell, Celia Weston, Arija Bareikis, Sam Shepard, Richard Jenkins.
1999 126 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, mild violence, and sex).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 9, 1999.
Based on the acclaimed novel by David Gutterson, "Snow Falling on Cedars," directed by Scott Hicks (1996's "Shine"), is a sumptuous, meticulously poetic motion picture that refreshingly tells much of its story through strikingly beautiful visual images, rather than a lot of dialogue. One could complain that some of the characters are never fully realized, including the central figure of the story, but those that say such a thing, perhaps, have missed the point. The film consistently weaves in and out of the present and the past, based on people's recollections, and, as in real life, memories often consist of nothing more than pictures, rather than words.
Superficially a courtroom mystery, in which a young Japanese fisherman, Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) is being tried for the alleged murder of a man on a fog-induced night in the Pacific Northwest, circa 1950, what the film truly is, at heart, is a moving romance, as well as a documentation of the treatment of the Japanese, and their division with the Anglo population, sparked from World War II. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) is a novice reporter who has returned to his hometown in the dead of winter (and a very heavy snowstorm) to cover the trial, which means much more to him than the usual news story because his childhood love and, he believes, soul mate, is Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), now Kazuo's loyal wife. As adolescents, Ishmael and Hatsue had fallen deeply in love with each other, but Hatsue decided, based on her mother's and the general public's belief, that the Japanese "should stick to their own kind." The majority of the residents of the small fishing town believe that Kazuo has to be the guilty one, but Ishmael suspects otherwise, and sets out to seek the truth, all the while pondering from afar about how his life might have been different had he and Hatsue followed their hearts ten years before.
Told out of chronological order, with flashbacks to Ishmael and Hatsue as children, teenagers, and Ishmael during and after fighting in WWII, and flashbacks within flashbacks, "Snow Falling on Cedars" is just as effortlessly told as an Atom Egoyan film (i.e. 1997's "The Sweet Hereafter"), and largely gains much of its effectiveness on the way the multiple stories beautifully and imperceptibly are revealed and transpire, akin to reading a complex, but very much satisfying, novel. Because the time period and storylines are changing throughout, there is no chance of any one of them (the trial, the romance, and the historical relevance) overstaying their welcome.
There are many dazzling, powerful sequences to be had within, including when Hatsue and her family, along with the rest of the Japanese in the town, are forced out of their homes and shipped off to internment camps, which is an example of complete bravura filmmaking. The scene looking back at the close relationship between Hatsue and Ishmael when they were younger is also superbly filmed and fastidious in detail. And the portrayal of the way the whites in the town look at the Japanese is also accurate and, thankfully, not overwrought. The music, by James Newton Howard, strikingly aids in underscoring the scenes.
There's really no way a person could possibly pen a review for "Snow Falling on Cedars" without mentioning its clearest and most worthy attribute, which is the exquisite, occasionally awe-inspiring cinematography, by Robert Richardson. Not only should the film be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination in this category (and deservedly, the award), but it many times left me in, basically, a wide-eyed gaze at the unbelievably beautiful images that were appearing on the screen, one after the other. Shots of rainy forests, and water dripping off of the leaves of plants, and snow-blanketed trees and mountains and whole, wide landscapes left me wondering if it was actually real (for it surely looked awfully believable), or billions of tons of fake snow, or a visual effect. Either way, never has snow looked as gorgeous and alluring and threatening as it does here.
The performances in the picture are not very flashy and, at times, are threatened to blend into the background. This posed a problem for me several times throughout, as I felt that the film was marvelously engaging to look at, but emotionally mute. Luckily, director Scott Hicks would prove me wrong immediately after each time my mind would wander to such a thought, with a stunner of a scene that left a precise dramatic impact. The last scene is particularly one of subtle, but unavoidably impassioned beauty. Of the cast, Youki Kudoh is a standout as Hatsue Miyamoto. She is so good, and so well-cast, that at times, her facial expressions say it all, and she doesn't even need to speak what she is thinking.
"Snow Falling on Cedars" probably isn't a film for everyone. While all mature audiences will be able to grasp its important themes and meaning, those partial to Hollywood movies with a lot of action or predictable comedy and romance will not be taken under its, overall, exquisite spell, due to a deliberately slow pace that cherishes and respects each and every one of its shots, and does not follow all of the rules of this sort of genre. Nevertheless, those audiences looking for a more challenging and intricate viewing experience will be genuinely delighted with the visual and emotional rewards that "Snow Falling on Cedars" has to offer.
©1999 by Dustin Putman