Snow Falling on Cedars

The local best-seller goes big time.

BOOKING A ROOM in the San Juans just got a whole lot harder. Misty islands rise high out of the black Puget Sound waters in Snow Falling, while the shoreline old-growth forests have a Yeatsian magic. Visually, this treatment of David Guterson's overrated 1995 best-seller about murder and memory in a '50s island village holds much promise. Yet after being lulled by such rich scenery, the novel's adaptation is ultimately inert and literal-minded.


directed by Scott Hicks

with Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, and Max von Sydow

opens January 7 at Metro, Oak Tree, Pacific Place

A Japanese-American war hero is on trial for the suspicious drowning of a local fisherman. At the courthouse, reporter Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) leers at the defendant's wife Hatsue (Youki Kudoh of Mystery Train), his secret childhood sweetheart. We learn from repeated flashbacks that theirs was a love that crossed ethnic and cultural boundaries—in short, they were soul mates. Or were they? Ishmael never stops pining, even when Hatsue is a happily married mother. The seductively gorgeous shots of the prepubescent pair frolicking on the beach have a dark, velvety texture. Ishmael's memories are sleek and fetishistic, like a perfume commercial. Yet the crucial perspective missing here is Hatsue's. Although much is made of her "exotic" beauty and her duty to conform to her parents' model of a proper Japanese girl, she is conspicuously silent. She remains the passive object of Ishmael's obsession.

In court, we hear repeated shouts of "Objection!" and, from Babe's James Cromwell, judicial admonitions like "Both of you: Be quiet!"—all the tiresome clich鳠of legal drama. (Max von Sydow delivers the film's best performance as the defense attorney.) Yet the trial merely serves as a framing device for Snow's gripping flashbacks. On the island, we learn how Ishmael's father—alone among white residents—protested the WWII internment of his Japanese-American neighbors. At war, Ishmael and the fisherman defendant (Rick Yune) face the horrors of battle.

Without much to do but brood and remember, Hawke plays the misanthropic, embittered Ishmael as just, well, bummed, with endless doe-eyed staring into space. Good-looking yet ultimately blank, he's appropriately cast in this picture—because from Scott Hicks (director of the similarly self-important Shine) and The Horse Whisperer's cinematographer, we receive another handsome, hollow film.

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