Snow Falling on Cedars--what a beautifully poetic title. It has the gentle compression of haiku, the delicate imagery of a Japanese watercolor. Like the novel it's based on, Snow Falling on Cedars is infused with a Zen-like stillness, the only sound the sound of, well, snow falling on cedars. Director Scott Hicks and cinematographer Robert Richardson have turned the novel's Pacific Northwest setting--a small island in Puget Sound--into a swirling arrangement of browns and grays and blacks and silvers and, of course, the countless whites of snow. Rarely has a mainstream movie done such a wonderful job of capturing not just the beauty of nature but the meaning behind that beauty, the way it mirrors our thoughts and feelings. Still, the movie might become a soggy mess if it weren't anchored to a solid story about racial prejudice, forbidden love and that big ugly scar across Uncle Sam's face, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Set before, during and after the war, the story travels back and forth through time but keeps returning to the postwar murder trial of Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a second-generation Japanese American who's accused of killing fellow fisherman Carl Heine Jr. (Eric Thal). Carl's body was found tangled up in his own fishing net, his brain oozing out of a cut above his left ear. And because Kazuo was the last person to see Carl alive--that, plus some circumstantial evidence--he's been arrested. Kazuo even has a motive: The Miyamotos and the Heines have a land dispute that goes back many years. But what he's really guilty of is being Japanese, something that has always been held against him, silently and not so silently, even though he's a decorated war veteran. A proud man, Kazuo remains stone-faced throughout the trial, which only confirms the islanders' notions of Japanese inscrutability. If Kazuo is to be saved, someone else will have to do the saving. Nels Gudmundsson, perhaps. As portrayed by Max von Sydow, Nels is a quietly crusading defense lawyer, akin to Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Hobbling around the courtroom, von Sydow is splendid.) Or perhaps Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) will come to the rescue. Like his Melvillian namesake, Ishmael is a seeker of truth--publisher, editor and reporter for the local newspaper. But he also has a conflict of interest: He and Kazuo's wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), were secret childhood sweethearts, rubbing their bodies together in the hollowed-out trunk of an old cedar tree. Ishmael and Hatsue's love was unable to survive the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the shipping off of Hatsue's family to a concentration camp in California. And even if it had, Hatsue would have had difficulty avoiding the weight of tradition, the pressure from her family to marry a nice Japanese boy like Kazuo. Snow Falling on Cedars is a love story, a social drama, even a murder mystery, but it transcends these genres through the kaleidoscopic way it tells its story. Individual shots, some lasting only a second or two, reflect off one another, forming patterns that seem to follow each character's train of thought. Terrence Malick tried something similar in The Thin Red Line, which was also set in World War II, but Malick's story kept getting derailed by all those voice-overs. Hicks has avoided voice-overs altogether, allowing the images, rather than the words, to carry the story. One critic has called the movie all shots and no scenes, which is far from the truth. But maybe that's the way it seems if you haven't read the novel first. If you have read the novel, you almost can't believe how faithfully and seamlessly Hicks has translated it to the screen. Even the use of flashbacks within flashbacks, which a book can handle with ease, seems as clear as a moonlit night on the open water.
There aren't many of those in Snow Falling on Cedars. The movie opens with a kerosene lamp trudging through a thick, soupy fog, and the weather never lets up, rain turning into snow, then a blizzard. The metaphors are there for the plucking--light ultimately piercing the island's dark past. But what raises Snow Falling on Cedars above other movies of its kind is the liquid grace with which it flows down the stream of consciousness. (The transitions from one time frame to another are amazingly supple.) And, as often happens with memory, everything seems to happen at once in some eternal present. It's a demanding movie, I suppose, even a little boring in places, if only because Hicks is determined to take his time. But it's not the dramatic zero other critics have said it is. And besides, drama isn't really what it's about. It's about the weight of the past upon the present. When that piled-up snow falls through those branches, it's pure poetry in motion.