Snow Falling on Cedars [1999]

Australian director Scott Hicks's follow-up to his widely beloved Shine comes as a small shock. Based on David Guterson's bestselling novel, Snow Falling on Cedars is far removed from the character-driven, pure storytelling of Shine and a comparative plunge into moody atmospherics. Action insinuates itself through the director's determined eye for watercolor composition and free-floating perspective, like random shoots of new growth in an overwhelming rain forest. It's impossible to be complacent as a viewer because Hicks's meditative style paradoxically forces one to locate and make the story happen internally. The approach makes good aesthetic sense in that Guterson's story couches courtroom drama in dreamy textures, and Hicks is determined to reflect that even if it means turning an audience's idea of narrative on its head. He also gets a lot of help from the weather in the Pacific Northwest: the setting is one of Washington State's San Juan Islands, where rain embraces earth and sky in a singular, introverted personality. There, a Japanese American war hero (Rick Yune) stands accused of murdering a white fisherman in the years following World War II. His wife (Youki Kudoh) is the former childhood sweetheart and lover of a local newspaperman (Ethan Hawke) whose bitterness over the loss--as well as his helplessness during the internment of Japanese Americans, and the crusading legacy of his journalist father (Sam Shepard)--prevents him from coming to the defense of the accused man. Layered emotions, layered sensations, layered clouds. This is historical fiction of a sort that works best as an experience of time's relativity: flowing, stopping, trickling. Ironically, the film's most commercial element, the trial, is the least interesting aspect, though old pro Max Von Sydow makes those scenes great fun as a wily defense counsel. --Tom Keogh

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