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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, October 28, 1999

HIFF photo
Ethan Hawke, right, plays a one-armed reporter
in "Snow Falling on Cedars," a movie based on
the critically acclaimed novel by David Guterson.

Edgy filming
technique buries
‘Snow’ storyline

By Burl Burlingame


Art Is it possible to try too hard? You'd think the film "Snow Falling on Cedars" would be an end run. There's the source material, a David Guterson novel both critically acclaimed and best-selling. There's hot-hot-hot director Scott Hicks, fresh off "Shine" and the documentary series "Submarines: Sharks of Steel." Plus a slew of Hollywood professionals behind the scenes. Slam. Dunk.

But adaptations of beloved literary works carry the burden of great expectations. Hicks has loaded the film with a ton of technique, every trick up his considerable sleeve, when he should have allowed the characters and the story to unfold naturally, clearly. It's an MTV approach to a quiet medium.

"Cedars" takes place in the Pacific Northwest, in the unsettling times following World War II. A fisherman is found drowned and suspicion about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death falls upon a Japanese-American veteran.

A trial follows, and the man's Japanese-American wife -- played by Youki Kudoh of "Picture Bride," is helped by a Caucasian, one-armed reporter with whom she had had a childhood romance. As a police procedural, the film is terminally hopeless, but it's not interested in the subject of law so much as it is fascinated with the nature of guilt.

It will remind you most of "To Kill a Mockingbird," although that story took place in an age of moral certainty that is unimaginable today.

"Cedars" is actually about the edgy relationship between Japanese immigrants, their American-born children and the American community at large, and the disgraceful relocation of Japanese during the war figures as a catalyst for later events. Someday, a really good film will be made about this event. "Cedars" art direction is successful in invoking that time and place, but it falls into the usual Hollywood trap of assuming that the past had no bright colors or new products.

Showing at HIFF

Bullet What: "Snow Falling on Cedars," starring Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh and Max von Sydow
Bullet When: 6:30 p.m. Nov. 5
Bullet Where: Hawaii Theatre Center
Bullet Cost: $6 general; $5 for Hawaii Film Fans, students, seniors, military
Bullet Note: Hawaii International Film Festival program and ticket information available at Starbucks Coffee, Blockbuster Video and

To a lesser extent, the film is also a look into the everyday lives of Pacific coasters, the rainy, misty, muddy islands where dampness is the norm. This is the wettest movie since "Waterworld." Certainly the fuzzy grayness that pervades their lives has infiltrated their metaphors as well.

The plot unfolds about the way you'd expect it to. It slips back and forth in time, revealing in vivid slices the lives of these islanders. The real dramatic question isn't the Japanese-American fellow's innocence -- in the moral compass of a film like this, that is a absolute -- but whether the one-armed man, a thoroughly decent guy, well-grounded in ethics by his newspaper editor father, will eventually do the right thing. We also spend most of the film wondering where his arm went.

Where "Cedars" goes awry is in the overwhelming preciousness of its technique. Hicks' obsessively dodgy filmmaking always calls attention to itself. This was OK in "Shine," where the rambunctious warmth of the actors worked past the framing devices. Here, though, the film rests on Ethan Hawke, a decidedly chilly actor.

The entirety of "Cedars" is shot either in extreme, eye-swelling close-ups or in excessively composed, arty landscapes. I now know more about the blood vessels in these actors' noses than I care to. There are almost no medium shots in the entire film, no physical reacting in the acting, no ability to stand back and let the story tell itself, as in "Mockingbird."

Even the music, like the film, is overwrought, overwhelmed with its self-referential, swelling three-hankie sensitivity. In "Cedars," minor pieces of evidence are discovered to the boom of kettle drums, throbbing cellos, cosmic choirs. It's like Beethoven at his deafest scoring "Cops." This is coupled with booming silences slabbed in regular, meditative intervals, like pit stops for the metaphor-challenged.

It has sentiment, not cheap sentimentality, though how much this is derailed by the film's technique will be up to the viewer's jive-threshold. "Snow Falling on Cedars" is a film that will strike some deeply, so expect to hear some snuffling in the theater. For others, the film will be absolutely excruciating and seemingly endless.

In all fairness, though, the snow and the cedars look fab.

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