On one level, Snow Falling On Cedars is a conventional courtroom drama. At its center is the murder trial of Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), accused of killing a fellow fisherman during a heavy nighttime fog in the waters off San Piedro Island.
Director Scott Hicks swiftly establishes both the crime and the courtroom dynamics. It’s 1950 and an all-white jury hears his case while the defendant sits defiantly stoic. His lawyer, Nels Gudmundsson (Max von Sydow), is a liberal crusader, but this aging lion seems too fragile to really do battle. It also appears that the defense is unable to prove that Miyamoto didn’t kill Carl Heine (Eric Thal), but is just providing reasons why he was driven to it.
While the trial drives the narrative, there’s much more at work in this lyrical adaptation of David Guterson’s best-selling novel. The screenplay (co-written by Hicks and Ron Bass) details the straightforward unraveling of a mystery. Yet the director adds another layer by envisioning San Piedro as a place haunted by memories as powerful, overwhelming and intangible as the fog that fateful night.
Hicks masterfully slips in and out of various characters’ points of view as they individually construct their collective past. In the stifling, tension-filled air of the courtroom, reporter Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) sits in the balcony, pretending not to hear the sneering remarks of his peers who chastise him for treating this simple case like the trial of the century. But Chambers, a veteran whose idealism is as shattered as his body, is exploring San Piedro’s collective guilt.
Ishmael watches Hatsue Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh), Kazuo’s supportive wife, but sees instead an inquisitive child and the free-spirited teenager who was his first love. When the young couple meet in the hollow of a massive cedar tree, they have created their own Eden, far removed from the tacit segregation of their community.
Hatsue recalls this and more: the battles she fought with her mother, who expected her to outgrow her restless energy and become a proper Japanese woman; how her family was rounded up in 1942 with others of Japanese descent and relocated to an internment camp for the remainder of World War II; marrying Kazuo at Manzanar, where they furtively honeymooned in the communal barracks.
Kazuo remembers the pre-war cooperation on the rural island, whose economy was driven by not just fishing but crops like strawberries. The Miyamotos farmed a portion of Heine property, and were a few payments away from owning it when they were interned. When he returns to San Piedro as a decorated American soldier, Kazuo discovers that not only has their land been sold, but they have no legal recourse to reclaim it.
Contrasting the static and verbose courtroom sequences, Scott Hicks has choreographed long passages sans dialogue. Moving leaps and bounds beyond his debut feature, the cloying and over-rated Shine, Hicks rediscovers the eloquence of silence in film and lets these intoxicatingly beautiful images strike an emotional chord that’s beyond words.
Snow Falling On Cedars is very much a story of place, where the actions are inseparable from the landscape. Shot in British Columbia, not far from David Guterson’s home of Bainbridge Island (in Puget Sound near Seattle), the film celebrates not just the natural beauty of majestic cedar forests, but the mutability of their ever-present water. The sea, rain, mist, fog, dew, steam, ice and snow provide a specific context for the human interactions.
Water in the Pacific Northwest is a permanent presence, but one which is constantly changeable. It can be harnessed and charted, but always slips through the fingers of a human’s grasp. In Snow Falling On Cedars, Hicks shows that it’s just like love.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.