As Cold as the Snow
Darkness, and a woody creak, the slap of water. The diffuse glow of a lantern materializes out of the nighttime fog, and then the midnight-blue figure on the prow of a small boat, holding the lamp aloft, barely distinguishable against the mist enveloping him.
You can almost feel the damp coming off the screen in the exquisite opening moments of Snow Falling on Cedars — and this luminous elegance continues throughout what is one of the most visually strikingly films I’ve ever seen. But pretty pictures alone do not a film make, and Cedars’ attempt to tell its tale almost entirely through images rather than words simply doesn’t work.
Despite its provenance — this film is based on the literary bestseller of the same name by David Guterson — and a backdrop that we haven’t seen depicted much (if at all) on film before, Cedars is little more than a standard murder mystery. Set in 1950 on San Piedro Island, in the American Pacific Northwest, Cedars gives us an uneasy melting pot of a community of long-entrenched white Americans and newcomers both Japanese and European. Carl Heine (Eric Thal), a local fisherman and son of Scandinavian immigrants, is found dead one morning, his apparently drowned body caught up in the fishing nets of his own boat. The only suspect appears to be Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a first-generation American and a decorated veteran of WWII who fought in Europe while the Japanese immigrants of his hometown were interned in concentration camps. A long-standing feud between Carl’s parents and Kazuo’s parents over some farmland provides more than enough motive for the prosecutor, Alvin Hooks (James Rebhorn: A Bright Shining Lie, The Game), to bring Kazuo to trial.
The film focuses, though, on Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke: GATTACA), the editor/reporter for the Island Review, the local newspaper formerly owned by his father, now dead. As a boy, we learn through flashbacks, Ishmael had an intense friendship with the girl, Hatsue (played as an adult by Youki Kudoh), who by 1950 would be Kazuo’s wife. Never quite lovers, at least not physically, they nevertheless were forced to pursue their relationship on the sly. “Stay away from white boys,” Hatsue’s mother had warned her young daughter. Racism cuts both ways on San Piedro Island.
Ishmael lives in the shadow not only of this star-crossed and ultimately failed romance, but also in the wake of his father, Arthur (Sam Shepard), a fiery liberal whose stand against the Japanese internment during the war earned him the enmity of the local whites and the respect of the Japanese immigrants, who see him as “a man of great compassion and fairness.” Ishmael is careful to remind people that he is not the man his father was, as becomes patently obvious.
Snow Falling on Cedars, then, is the story of Ishmael’s reluctant journey to become a man of compassion and fairness, as he finds himself having to decide whether the bitterness he feels over Hatsue’s rejection of him will stand in the way of correcting an injustice he is in a position to affect. It’s a very interior story, and probably not one that anyone could easily adapt for the screen. But screenwriter Ronald Bass (who cowrote with director Scott Hicks) doesn’t seem the ideal choice. With credits including Entrapment, Stepmom, and My Best Friend’s Wedding, Bass is hardly a master of subtlety, which is what is called for here. Even Rain Man, of which he was a cowriter, tells its story of a change of attitude with a lot of motion and a lot of activity. With Cedars, as if he’s aware of the requirements of the story and is afraid of failing it, he goes too far into the subtle — with very little dialogue, Cedars substitutes swelling music and jumbled visuals for characterization. The result is something more like a simulation of a movie than anything else.
Through flashbacks, we’re shown the growth of the tender relationship between the young Ishmael and Hatsue. They run on the beach, traipse through a tall, lush forest dripping moisture, hide from the rain inside a huge hollow tree while romantic music emotes for them. Though the two child actors (whose names I can’t find anywhere) are wonderful, awkward and delicate in exactly the right proportions, the sequences end up feeling like commercials for easy-listening CDs: the Young Love Collection from K-Tel.
Other moments that should be devastating come across as merely distantly sad, evoking only generic sympathy for characters from which the film keeps a standoffish distance. During the war, before the internments began, the FBI comes to Hatsue’s family, confiscating anything remotely Japanese, including family photos and religious items. And when Hatsue’s father is arrested for the most ridiculous of reasons, we see him sitting in the back seat of the agents’ car, his chin and bottom lip quivering as he tries not the break down in tears at the indignity. How much more powerful this moment would have been if this hadn’t been the first, and very nearly the only, time we see Hatsue’s father.
Despite some strong supporting performances, particularly from James Cromwell (The Green Mile, A Slight Case of Murder) as the trial judge, Richard Jenkins (Random Hearts, The Imposters) as the sheriff of San Piedro Island, and Max von Sydow (What Dreams May Come) as Kazuo’s defense attorney, Snow Falling on Cedars is very unsatisfying. It’s got a lot of style, but nowhere near enough substance.