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    Snow Falling on Cedars

    Precipitous decline

    "Snow Falling on Cedars" wraps a convoluted love story in a self-consciously artistic visual package. No thanks.


    For a big-budget studio film, there are a lot of art-house pretensions in Scott Hicks' "Snow Falling on Cedars." Artistic shots of young lovers catching raindrops on their tongues in the bowels of a tree, or making out behind dimpled glass. A non-linear narrative structure so complex that you could be excused for thinking the lead character (played by Ethan Hawke) actually stumbles across himself washed up on a beach, many years older and ravaged by war. An intricate, distracting soundtrack abuzz with overlapping dialogue, babies wailing, wind and rain beating down on an old creaky courthouse, all set to strings that swell and swell some more.

    Directed by: Scott Hicks.
    Written by: Ronald Bass, Scott Hicks.
    Adapted from the novel by: David Guterson.
    Cast: Youki Kudoh, Ethan Hawke, Rick Yune, Anthony Harrison, Max Von Sydow.
    Cinematography: Robert Richardson.

    Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
    And snow. Lots of it, some of which falls on timbers.

    Fans of David Guterson's best-selling novel will probably wish that Hicks, the director of "Shine," would just shut up and get on with the story.

    That story is a post-World War II courtroom drama cum love story set in the high country of Washington state where the cedars touch the sky and everything is blue and gray (except for the occasional red of the women's lipstick). The courtroom drama results from the death of a local fisherman and the accusation of a Japanese landowner for his murder. The love story is one from the past: how a local reporter named Ishmael Chambers (Hawke) once loved the accused man's wife (Youki Kudoh). This all transpires in a time and a place when anti-Japanese sentiment was at its zenith.

    Snow Falling on Cedars  
    Earnest, handsomely mounted, and empty, "Snow Falling on Cedars" takes a difficult chapter in this nation's history — how the United States interned thousands of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor — and forsakes a lot of hard questions in the process.

    Max von Sydow's defense attorney does, however, deliver a darned good closing argument as this two-hour film draws to a close. Hicks knows it, and doesn't cut or pull back for a second.

    It's a rare moment of truth in a film that exploits its cinematic strengths — exquisite photography, manipulative music, and a fractured narrative style— at the expense of honest storytelling. Von Sydow is magnificent in this scene. Magnificence, alas, is a quality that "Snow Falling on Cedars" strives, yet fails, to achieve.

    OCTOBER 20, 1999

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