"Snow Falling on Cedars" is a feverish love story, but the lovers are the director and his camera. When you watch it, you feel as if you're intruding on something intimate between them.
This latest effort by Australian director Scott Hicks loves its lovely movieness. It seems to be trying to think of some new rapture that hasn't been thought of in the previous century. It drifts far from narrative and deeply into poetry. It finds haiku everywhere: It seems to be set among petals on a wet, black bough.
Basically, it's a noir thriller hidden beneath too much education. Under the dissolves, the moody shots of snow drifting through a lowering sky, the diffraction of light smeared by raindrops on the lens, the sense of wetness everywhere, it's our old friend from 1947, the wrong-man thing. The wrinkles are mild, to say the least.
You'll get the drift of this about halfway through, unless you've read the novel by David Guterson, in which case you'll already know the drift and you'll wonder where the hell it is in all the arty photography. Up till that time, you've been taking the Hicks magical mystery tour of San Pedro Island, Wash., in 1950, where you've noted that the suspect and his wife are Asian, the victim and the reporter are Occidental, the snow is white and the rain is wet. But most of all you've noticed that Hicks has grown a new style. Whatever happened to the clarity in which he rooted "Shine"? What did he do in between the two productions, see "The English Patient" leventy-leven times?
The novel, of course, was a sleeper success, lush, rich, read by millions. And once the movie settles down a bit, it connects with that appeal and picks up a purity of line that becomes compelling. Guterson, for example, has come up with a neat little mystery that Hicks should have trusted more just as he should have hired a cinematographer he trusted less.
Ethan Hawke, everybody's favorite sensitive young man, plays Ishmael Chambers, the island's writer-editor-typesetter, a post he inherited from his father (seen in oh-so-many flashbacks as Sam Shepard). That's one of Ishmael's issues: Call him father-haunted. He wonders if he's the man his dad was. But he's also love-haunted: When he was a boy, he was truly, deeply, madly in love with Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), an ardency of desire that would have upset the island's gentle equilibrium between the races had it been made public, so it never was. To go for the trifecta, he's also war-haunted. He spent a brief time on the beach of some hell-blasted reef where men of the same culture that produced the woman he loves tried their best to erase him from the Earth. The war is everywhere in this movie, just as it was in "The English Patient." I like that; we forget too easily how the war lingered in our culture for decades. Now a few years after its end, the Japanese have returned from a government-imposed exile in the western desert with great bitterness, facing diminished participation in the community, lost property and racial hate stirred by the deaths of white men in battle against the Japanese, no matter that their own sons were out in Italy killing Germans by the bucketful.
It's Hatsue's husband, Kazuo (Rick Yune), who is the logical suspect when Carl Heine (Eric Thal) is found floating offshore in a fish net. To make things more difficult, Kazuo and Carl, once close friends, were involved in a commercial dispute over some land. To make them yet more difficult, Carl's blood is found on Kazuo's fishing boat while Kazuo's knife is found on Carl's, although he was killed by blunt force.
Ishmael--when he's not remembering his ecstasies as a young man with Hatsue or his wise father or his own maiming experiences in wartime against the Japanese--begins to see through the obviousness of the state's case. Another theory of the events of those dark and rainy nights is plausible, but here's the temptation that dogs him: If he intercedes, then Hatsue is lost to him forever.
The movie is entirely too haunted for its own good, and it takes a great deal of time before it settles down. (Everyone in this movie has issues; it's overdosed on point of view.) It's as if Hicks has simultaneously discovered psychology and cinematography, and they combine dangerously for him. You have to wait for him to get over it, and then you can enjoy it.
Snow Falling on Cedars (127 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild violence and racial distrust.
CAPTION: Youki Kudoh as the wife of a murder suspect.
CAPTION: Youki Kudoh and Ethan Hawke play long-lost loves.