"Cedars" makes its case
By Peter Keough
JANUARY 10, 2000: Of all the arts, film is perhaps best equipped to mirror the way the mind works, the overlapping play of memory and imagination, desire and regret. Film is also the most commercial of arts and the most expensive to produce -- which is why not many movies fulfilling that potential get made. One that did is Snow Falling on Cedars, Scott Hicks's adaptation of the David Guterson bestseller. On the surface a courtroom drama set in the Pacific Northwest shortly after World War II, it is -- like a number of other 1999 films, including The Limey, Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, and Magnolia -- an ambitious, mostly successful attempt to prevail over mainstream movie conventions and expectations.
It is also true to its staid but well-crafted literary source. Set in 1950 on the significantly named Amity Island off the Washington coast, the story begins when fisherman Carl Heine (Eric Thal) is found drowned in his net, his skull split open. The chief suspect is Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a Japanese-American whose father was in the process of buying some land from Carl's father before Pearl Harbor changed everything and Amity Island's Japanese community was rounded up and transported to the infamous Manzanar concentration camp. In a vain attempt to show loyalty, Kazuo signed up, served in Europe, and was decorated. But when he returned home, he discovered that the Heines had sold the land for a profit, leaving Kazuo, his beautiful wife, Hatsue (striking newcomer Youki Kudoh), and their young children at a loss. And so when Carl is found dead, circumstantial evidence and latent racism point to Kazuo as his killer, and he goes on trial, defended by the doddering but shrewd barrister Nels Gudmundsson (Max von Sydow in one of the finest performances of the year).
Watching the proceedings is Ishmael (Ethan Hawke, who's starting to look a little like Darren in Bewitched but fits this role well), who unlike Ahab (Guterson has a weakness for ponderous allusion) is missing an arm, not a leg, and is obsessed with a woman, not a whale. An embittered veteran, he runs the local paper he inherited from his crusading father (Sam Shepard, naturally) and is covering the story. Perched on the upper gallery in a courthouse that recalls that of To Kill a Mockingbird, he peers through the bar-like balustrade with a furtive and more than professional intensity.
For there is more to the case than just the bare facts. The film's initial image is of a lantern barely cutting through dense fog, and that light will be the key to the mystery in more ways than one. But before that resolution, Hicks plunges beneath the surface of the story with multi-layered montages, interweaving points of view, and fluid, interlocking flashbacks, such as the ones that show us Ishmael's forbidden love for Hatsue. Drawn together as children, they secretly met for walks on the beach and woods, avoiding discovery not so much by Ishmael's liberal father as by Hatsue's mother, who mistrusts white people -- an attitude confirmed with the outbreak of war and the brutal relocation camps. This background is related in brief glimpses and extended sequences sparked presumably by key moments in the trial and shown presumably from Ishmael's point of view, but the overwrought train of associations gets derailed with flashbacks within flashbacks, points of view within points of view that confuse matters rather than deepening them.
Yet at other times Hicks's promiscuous use of memory shudders into an eloquent clarity, as when a simple drumroll (the James Newton Howard soundtrack is evocative, though it can be intrusive) accompanies the stark round-up of Japanese-Americans for Manzanar, in what may be the most aching depiction of that national disgrace on film. And the central montage involving a letter read at three different times melds a grotesque beach landing in the Pacific, innocent love between children, and racist rage into an overwhelming five minutes that accomplishes everything Terence Malick attempted in The Thin Red Line.
"Fucking Jap bitch," Ishmael concludes as his arm is dumped into a bucket, and the words are tragic. This is no simplistic tract against injustice, no pretty series of postcards (though cinematographer Robert Richardson does offer more than enough of the title conifers) backdropping a melodrama. Cedars aspires to shed a light on the reality behind glossy conventions and clichés, on how people hate and love and remember. And its challenges are more than rewarded.
Scott HicksScott Hicks, multi-Oscar nominee in 1997 for Shine (Geoffrey Rush won for Best Actor), nods appreciatively when his adaptation of David Guterson's bestseller Snow Falling on Cedars is compared to Terence Malick's Thin Red Line -- without the voiceovers.
"My first job on working on the screenplay [by Ron Bass] was to eliminate all the voiceover," he says. "There was voiceover from beginning to end, Ishmael's interior monologue. I thought this was distancing us from engagement, so let's remove this. That created some very specific challenges, because Ishmael is a very closed-off, internalized character with little contact or interaction with people. But I felt I had to do that because there are other points of view in the story. The point of view of the Japanese people."
That Japanese point of view was crucial. Set during World War II, Cedars is about Ishmael, a white man in love with Hatsue, a Japanese woman, But he is more an observer than a participant in the central dramas -- the trial of Hatsue's husband Kazuo, for murder, and the forced relocation of the community's Japanese population. "I wanted to be careful not to turn it into a history lesson," says Hicks. "But I did feel it was necessary to bear witness to these events. Not to feel guilty, but in order that we will never let this happen again."
To avoid preachiness and reflect the depth and immediacy of the story, Hicks felt he had to challenge his audience. "In truth, it's not really courtroom drama. It's less about the details of the trial than it is about confronting the past. In a number of ways. There are people taking the witness stand forced literally to remember the past. So one by one we are taken into their memories and have to share with them the process of unraveling the deeper mysteries of the story. It's an intimate love story played out against this epic canvas of events, all of which is resolved in a courtroom. That's how I would characterize it. It doesn't lend itself to a neat, one-sentence storyline."
Not even the film's central sequence, a five-minute montage operating on a number of different levels and from different points of view, can be neatly summarized. It all starts with a Dear John letter from Hatsue that Ishmael recovers years later from a box of memorabilia. Or does it?
"In structuring the screenplay, I pushed that letter as far downstream as I could. I sensed it was the emotional climax and at the same time the point where we discover what happened to Ishmael in the war. It's also the climax of the way memory works in the film, because by the time you get to that episode, you've got five different time frames all co-existing. She's reading the letter to her mother in Manzanar. He's reading the letter in the ship traveling to battle. He's also reading the letter in time present. He's also remembering the battle and the war during which he has this vision/dream or memory of him and Hatsue on the beach as if they were there during the war on the day they found the dead fish on the beach. So this is all happening at once.
"In my brief to the editor at the time I wrote, 'This is not about conventional flashback. This is about co-existence of time. I want to be flown back and forth through all these time frames using the medium of the letter as the bonding factor.' "
Will Hicks be dismayed if some people come away from the film, which opens in the fog, feeling as if they'd never left it?
"You are immersed in it. The opening scene is emblematic of the whole film. In a sense the movie is a search for the truth. And nothing is quite what it first appears to be."
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