Snow Falling on Cedars

There’s no question that Shine director Scott Hicks’s Snow Falling
on Cedars
is well-named. The weather — not only snow but fog and rain
and looming clouds over the glorious landscapes of San Pedro Island in coastal
Washington state — is undoubtedly the star of the show. Unfortunately, this
is because the weather is mainly what it is possible to pay attention to through
the confusing cutting and time- shifting of the main story — though the
weather’s magnificence does not vary enough for it to be of much use in sorting
out whether the action is taking place in the present or in flashback to the
near past or in flashback to the distant past or in flashback within flashback.
Nor are there enough shots that do not take place with snow falling on cedars in
them to be of much use in establishing which, of those that do, are which.

Not, frankly, that it is much worth the effort it takes to sort the film’s
confusing time sequences out. We get the essentials right enough. A local
fisherman is knocked off his boat and drowns. There is some circumstantial
evidence to suggest that Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a Japanese- American
resident of the island, who may have had a motive to kill him, was on board his
boat that night. It is only a year or two since the Second World War ended and
the island’s Japanese population, who had been interned during the war, are
still not liked or trusted. It begins to look as if a kangaroo court will render
summary justice. But the fearless young proprietor of the island’s lone
newspaper, Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), sets out to discover the
truth — which there are no prizes for guessing.

What makes Ishmael’s efforts the more piquant are the remarkable facts that
(a) he has lost an arm to enemy action by the Japanese and (b) he is still in
love with his Japanese childhood sweetheart, Hatsuo Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh), who
dumped him in order to marry none other than the defendant, Kazuo. In other
words, the film has no point except to demonstrate what a splendid, loving,
forgiving, unprejudiced sort of chap Ishmael is. Let us stipulate that. Let us
further stipulate that the farmers and fishermen of rural Washington State in
the 1940s were regrettably liable to make racially-based judgments about people
and that they could even be considered complicit in the nation’s decision to
intern its citizens of Japanese descent in the immediate aftermath of the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Does this surprise anyone? Do we learn anything
useful from it?

I’m afraid not. By holding up for our veneration, Merchant-Ivory fashion, the
one character among these “fools in old-style hats and coats” (as Philip Larkin
puts it) who is most like our comfortable, pacific, unthreatened,
turn-of-the-century selves, namely the admirably unprejudiced young Ishmael, the
film invites us not to involve ourselves productively in the fictional lives we
observe but merely to feel superior to them, and to congratulate ourselves on
that superiority. What makes it worse is that Ishmael is a deep-thinking
journalist who takes upon himself the sufferings of the world, agonizing:
“Sometimes I think unfairness is a part of things.. . Maybe I should write an
article about unfairness, and all the unfair things people do to each

At one point, this young puppy takes his father (Sam Shepard) to task for
falling short, in 1941, of the highest standards of 1990s multiculturalism.
“That’s not journalism,” he says; “that’s propaganda.” I thought of that line
during the seemingly endless shots, silent but accompanied by solemn music, of
the Japanese deportations, which Hicks was obviously milking for all the pathos
he could get out of them. That’s not film-making; that’s propaganda.

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