Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) 8/10
It’s about 1950 in the Pacific Northwest. When a fisherman drowns, murder is suspected, and the trial of Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) brings up the history of racism against the Japanese community here, the damage wrought by internment, and the childhood romance between Kazuo’s wife Hatsue (Youki Kudoh) and Ishmael (Ethan Hawke).
The moral center of this movie is trite. Prejudice is bad, justice is good, and some wounds can heal. Wow. But That’s a wire frame on which to hang the coat of many colors that is Snow Falling on Cedars. Other than the thin structure of an unfair trial fueled by racism, there is little in this movie we’ve seen before. Japanese internment hasn’t been dealt with much in movies, certainly not as an element of a personal tale.
Snow Falling on Cedars is primarily a visual study of the way that memory works. It is full of imagery; beautiful imagery, horrific imagery, images that pop up out of sequence in the mind’s eye of the people haunted by them. Ishmael looks at Hatsue and sees their childhood together, sees their first kiss, sees her family taken away to the internment camp, all in a blur of memory and feeling. The memories are haunted, angry, frightened, and lost, but feeling is dampened; it is the images that dominate. The dampening of feeling is, I suspect, intended, and tied with the symbolism of a blanket of snow; it also prevents the film from being a soap opera.
Images provide questions as well as answers. Revelations, when they occur, are visual, except in the somewhat forced dénouement to the trial. We see a letter being written and read. Is it written sincerely, or under duress? We don’t know. We see memories…or are they fantasies? As a heavy blizzard falls, everything is shrouded in coldness and fog.
One revelation bothers me. Without revealing it, I still wonder if it was a revelation at all; if the filming cleverly hid something, or stupidly failed to show it. It was something I didn’t feel needed hiding, nor was the reveal particularly…revealing.
As usual, Ethan Hawke gives a passable performance that, while good, will never be studied by acting students. Youki Kodoh is extremely affecting, and Rick Yune does little but be stoical and very handsome (but he’s very good at that). Supporting players, including Max von Sydow, Celia Weston, and Sam Shepard, are impressive. But the star is the cinematography, and the way that the cinematography is edited together to create an impression, not of beauty, but of the memories of beauty. Everything here is bittersweet.