Snow Falling on Cedars

(Scott Hicks, USA, 1999)


Snow Falling on Cedars, adapted from the best-seller by David Guterson, is an ambitious leap forward for Australian director Scott Hicks. Where Shine (1996) trod in fairly comfortable middlebrow waters, this is a full-blown Hollywood art film.


It starts out as a murder mystery. Kazuo (Rick Yune) is on trial, suspected of killing a fellow fisherman in the misty waters of San Piedro Island. In the courtroom, the complex, shameful history of American-Japanese relations during the war colours people's interpretations of what may have occurred between the two men.


For Ishamael (Ethan Hawke), a reporter covering the case, a personal history also affects his perception of what is unfolding. Kazuo's wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), was once his youthful love. The story of their separation, and its consequences in Ishamael's life, have left him bitter and sullen, his heart hardened.


Hicks and co-writer Ron Bass have chosen a difficult, intricate structure of flashbacks with which to tell this tale. In its present tense, the courtroom story depends entirely on an excruciating delay factor: the time it takes Ishmael to act upon a certain hunch he has about a piece of information which only he possesses.


This plot device does not really plausibly work as a suspense mechanism. It is, in fact, more like a MacGuffin as Hitchcock defined it – the narrative excuse that allows something more significant and captivating to unfold.


In this case, what matters is Ishmael's mental journey through the past. For the film to succeed as a cathartic drama, we must feel that Ishmael is not merely recollecting, but therapeutically working through the incidents of his history with Hatsue. If Ishmael has not grown within himself by the end of the trial, then nothing can truly be resolved.


It is hard, however, to give flashbacks in cinema this kind of personalised force and direction. Sergio Leone succeeded with such a structure in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), but that was because the story interrogated its hero, and stood outside his point of view, as much as it evoked his most vivid memories. Snow Falling on Cedars, locked as it is (for the most part) within Ishamael's melancholy perception, fails to take us all the way with its intended journey.


The film has other, equally serious problems. There is a nagging discrepancy between the relatively limited scope of the story – much of it resembling an intimate, chamber drama – and the epic nature of the stylistic treatment that Hicks has imposed.


There is not a single normal, understated, off-hand moment in this movie. Everything is beefed up, given a sombre, grave aura. Sometimes it seems as if every look, teardrop or snowflake has received individual, magnifying attention.


Hicks is clearly trying to emulate such filmmakers as Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexandr Sokurov. As in their movies, a bold approach to visualisation – planes of murky shadow and suspended, out-of-focus areas within vast, decentred frames – regularly takes the drama to a point of painterly abstraction. A careful soundscape matches this deliberately indistinct texture.


I applaud Hicks’ ambition, and the precision with which he has realised it. But the sum effect of this stylisation is a great weight upon the viewer. The film lacks breathing space; it imposes its moods and meanings. The least fortunate pay-off of the style is that the emotional content of the drama becomes congealed, tortuous, rather morose and masochistic.


The actors – with the noble exception of Max von Sydow, who is blessed with a magnificent close-up long-take soliloquy near the trial's end – tend to become static ciphers within fussily composed images. Hawke and Kudoh are drained of the attractive, restless energy they have exhibited in previous roles.  


But this is, after all, a story of sacrifice and renunciation, of fate and its victims. Contemporary popular cinema seems to have rediscovered, with a vengeance, the old-fashioned melodrama of missed opportunities, tragic accidents and impossible loves – most often, curiously enough, where an inter-racial relationship is at stake.


For all my criticisms of Snow Falling on Cedars, by the end, I was moved by it. The film reaches, as so many mythic-minded works these days do, for a moment of grace, forgiveness and redemption, after such a long, collective history of pain and misunderstanding. All I will say about this ending is: it worked for me.

© Adrian Martin December 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search