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Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)
Most movies about racism make society out to be either
much better or much worse off than it really is, and end by offering a mushy-headed
optimism or impotent outrage in lieu of insight. What might be our most famous movie about
racial prejudice, To Kill a
Mockingbird, was wise enough to frame its story through the eyes of its children
characters, understanding that their loss of innocence was far more compelling than the
white slut and her chiffonier. Now comes Snow Falling on Cedars, the new film by
Scott Hicks (Shine) thats based on David Gutersons best-selling novel. Its a movie that seems to
understand the perils of its theme, yet succumbs to a clenched sense of virtue just the
Set in 1950, with
the memory of World War II fresh in its characters minds, Snow tells the story of a
Japanese-American ex-GI who stands accused of killing a white fisherman on a remote island
near Puget Sound, and the long-buried resentments uncovered by the ensuing trial. Even as
he protests his innocence, Kazuo (Rick Yune) is strangely passive in the face of the
charges against him. A local newspaper reporter, Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), is also
in a precarious position. He not only must overcome the bitterness hes been living
with since his childhood lover, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), ended their romance and married
Kazuo; he must also come to terms with the demanding legacy left behind by his father (Sam
Shephard), a principled newspaper publisher.
Much of the film
takes place in a shadowy continuum of the main characters memories. Without warning
it launches into flashbacks of Ishmael and Hatsues romance, Ishmaels and
Kazuos individual wartime experiences, Hatsues family life at Manzanar, and
Ishmael watching his father pay the price for his racially tolerant newspaper editorials.
At least some of these memories are relevant to the present-day story because Ishmael has
discovered some documents that would clear Kazuo of the murder charge, but his lingering
heartache is at war with the obligation to truthfulness that his father instilled in him.
As a result, he carries the evidence with him wherever he goes, toys with it and worries
over it, as he looks for the courage to produce it in court. Snow Falling on Cedars
is about Ishmaels search for an emotional liberation from himself and his memories.
Hicks and his
co-writer Ron Bass are careful not to make their villains too villainous none of
the towns bigots are as determinedly repellent as the white-trash father in Mockingbird
but neither are they very interesting or original. The sheriff (Richard
Jenkins) and the coroner (James Rebhorn) are more petty than evil, so weightless that
its hard to understand why the movie spends so much time on them. Snow does
better with the dead fishermans mother (Celia Weston), a woman whose visceral
distaste for Kazuo is accented by her Swedish-American heritage. And to its credit, the
movie recognizes that the character whose bigotry does the most palpable harm might be
Hatsues tradition-minded mother: after all, it is she who forces Hatsue to end her
relationship with Ishmael because of his race.
Snow Falling on Cedars
is most hurt by its remote lead characters. Its a good thing that the plot
constantly reminds us how much pain Ishmael is in because Hawke never expresses it;
instead, he brings the same blanked-out quality to every scene. (No stand-up comedian
would ever do an Ethan Hawke impersonation he doesnt have any personality to
imitate.) To make matters worse, Kudoh gives an equally vacuous performance as Hatsue.
Having two inarticulate lead characters is bad enough, but casting inexpressive actors in
both parts is like a cinematic double negative. Your eyes ping-pong back and forth between
them as you wonder what it is youre supposed to be watching.
features that old standby of socially concerned courtroom dramas, the cagey and oracular
defense attorney. This time its Max von Sydow in the Gregory Peck-Charles
Laughton-Jimmy Stewart role, oozing conscientiousness and whats supposed to be a
lovable theatricality. (Hes plopping a well-worn cushion onto his courtroom seat in
the movies first glimpse of him.) One old ham playing another old ham, von Sydow
looks like hes having fun even though he gets the movies most rotten dialogue,
much of it congregated in a late-night speech that he delivers to Ishmael. The old pro
gets through lines like, "Accidents rule every corner of the universe except maybe
chambers of the human heart," without breaking down in either laughter or tears.
The lawyer character
is of a piece with the movies tried-and-true mentality. Snow is set in a
world where FBI agents are stripped of every tic and trait so that they can stand in for
governmental coldness; where a young girls eyes twinkle with an audience-pleasing
mischievousness as her older sister makes love; and where a woman, upon hearing that her
husband has died, stares into space for a small eternity before stage whispering, "I
warned him this would happen." Snows big set-piece, the Japanese
townspeoples evacuation to the internment camps, repeats nearly note for note the
Jewish evacuation at the beginning of Schindlers List. Despite its length and subject
matter, the sequence plays at a great emotional distance, as if seen through the wrong end
of a telescope. Nothing neither shame nor fear nor outrage can break through
the "great moment" sheen.
that a movie containing such earthbound characters and dialogue should have the visual
distinction of Snow Falling on Cedars, but Hicks and cinematographer Ralph
Richardson have captured some utterly extraordinary images. The films opening
sequence, depicting the events leading up to the fishermans death and the ensuing
search for his body, is a parade of mind-boggling shots worthy of comparison to Terrence
Malick. Snow is filled with the tones and textures of fog and rain and snow and
ice; many scenes, framed as they are by clouds and forest-lined mountains, look like
real-life renderings of Japanese rice-paper paintings. Hicks and Richardson also do some
beautiful work with dead space, isolating characters in a world of velvety shadows or fog.
But inevitably the
pretty images stop and the talk begins again. It cant hurt anything for a prestige
picture to take on the ills of racial prejudice, but it remains a puzzlement that such a
dynamic subject so often leaves us yearning for more. In the end, Snow Falling on
Cedars falls victim to its own reverential attitude: it forgets to include some human
beings in its passionate defense of them.
- Tom Block