Written by: Ronald Bass & Scott Hicks
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh
Some films cannot be contained by a script. And some filmmakers cannot just trust in their material. They must believe in the themes of their story and in the facets of filmmaking that enrich a viewing experience. Simply put, a filmmaker must know when to indulge. Snow Falling on Cedars is a film that indulges–in its visual splendor, the potency of its dramatic arc, and even in the talent associated with it.
In the sleepy coastal town of San Piedro, a fisherman has been found dead. It is 1950, only nine years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in a community with a heavy Japanese population, tensions have never ceased. Kazuo Miyamoto is charged with the murder of the fisherman. Reporter Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), a local man whose compassionate father was a pillar of the Japanese community, is covering the story but has his own interest in the case: Hatsue, Kazuo’s wife, was his childhood love. As new evidence and testimony mount, and as Ishmael’s investigation intensifies, he grapples with his own prejudice and with the truth he knows in his heart.
The plot is given to us in the slimmest of impressions, largely told through Ishmael’s probing point of view and through the resonant pain of his memories with Hatsue. The film and the best-selling novel from which it is based take their titles from the large cedar tree the young couple used to hide under. As Ishmael’s father intones, “Journalism is about choices.” So too is our memory, which twists and contorts our present day reality. The fragmentation of the plot, so potentially gimmicky, prevents the present tense emotionality of the characters from being passed over, including the dead fisherman’s grieving widow and the sheriff who gave her the fateful news. The film is populated by a wish-list of character actors (Max Von Sydow, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepherd, James Rebhorn) who fill out the edges of the film like only a detailed 300 page novel can do. Sydow, in particular, provides the film’s moral center as the perceptive yet infirm defense attorney who aptly acknowledges that every day in parts of the world humanity can go on trial. While Hawke, so perfect at conveying sensitive anguish, is more a conduit for the emotional fulcrum of the plot than a character. No matter, it is his wayward grievances that propel the film to its melancholic conclusion.
Where most films show their cards within the first reel, this one expands as it keeps going, much like a novel that reveals itself in lines of dialogue, recurring motifs, and minute gestures from characters. Such a blatantly literary approach to filmmaking is not always tolerated. Whereas many book to film adaptations falter by supplanting visual storytelling with outright dialogue, Snow triumphs by translating the descriptive prose into evocative cinematography. Indeed, Robert Richardson’s photography, with its stunning use of the anamorphic lens and surprisingly low contrast lighting given the disparity between the interior and exterior color schemes, entices the senses by plunging full on into the wintry morass–one which doubles as an ethical morass. Not to be outdone, composer James Newton Howard’s dreamy crescendos lift otherwise ordinary scenes.
With the talent on hand in Snow Falling on Cedars, it would have been damn near contingent of director Scott Hicks to become complacent and let it override his scenes, and truthfully, he does just that on numerous occasions. But the story, drenched in the atmosphere of a period of history (the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II) almost buried by more canonical American events, is not just about a failed childhood romance but about how the past informs the way we look at the facts of our lives, and the responsibility we have in making wise choices based on the truth, no matter how subjective that may be.
Snow Falling on Cedars is a film that critics utterly failed. It was released in 1999, just after the height of the Miramax Films prestige sweep. Perhaps its mixture of courtroom drama, star-crossed romance, and period morality play got lost amid the shuffle to declare every new awards bait picture as the resurgence of artistic cinema. Whatever the reason, the film reaffirms what can happen to material when it’s supported by the right creative forces.