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Saturday, April 8, 2000

'SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS'

A screen full of haiku memories


The best moment in "Snow Falling on Cedars" (for me anyway), is when Youki Kudoh lashes out at her mother: "I don't want to be Japanese! I want to be an American!" There you have the Japanese-American angst in a nutshell, or perhaps just postwar Japanese angst. Deep down, many of us have yelled the very same thing at different times, causing the bolder ones to up sticks and flee from this small corner of East Asia for the Land of the Free. Hideo Nomo yelled it, Irabu yelled it and Youki Kudoh yelled it, on and off the screen.

This is why, for many mainland Japanese, "Snow Falling" is somewhat sticky viewing. Not only does it touch upon our innermost desires (always a hazardous undertaking in this country), it deals with all the things we'd rather ignore, like racial prejudice and Pearl Harbor and picking strawberries because this was once the only work available to Japanese immigrants. It also recounts, in graphic detail, the rounding up and sending off of thousands of Japanese to internment camps during World War II.

In the midst of all this prickly history is the love story between Kudoh and Ethan Hawke. In the movie he is obsessed by her exotic otherness, to the point of being totally uninterested in blonde girls his own age. But the war tears them apart and when he comes back, he's missing an arm. The girl he loved throughout childhood is now married to a Japanese guy and the mother of two kids. When he tries to talk to her, all she can say is: "Let it go. Forget about me."

Of course Ethan resents this horribly. What he can't see is that this girl has already passed through the two stages most common to young Japanese Americans: 1) the burning desire to be American; and 2) the cold resignation that this will never be. Thus she must write him off, and team up with a fellow Japanese who shares her dilemma. Ah, the tragedy of it -- a postwar "Romeo and Juliet" meets Cultural Exchange Class.

Actually, "Snow Falling" is a whodunit thriller, involving a German-American fisherman who wound up a corpse in his own net off the coast of a small Washington island. Fingers immediately point to "the Jap" (Rick Yuhn), who had a personal grudge. He is put on trial, and his wife Hatsue (Kudoh) wrings her small hands. They both know that racial tension hisses through the courtroom like radiator steam. Not one member of the jury is Japanese and the prosecutor insists on mentioning Pearl Harbor at five-minute intervals. Their only hope rests on a creaky, shaky lawyer (an excellent Max von Sydow).

But it's so easy to lose the thread of what's going on and wander dreamily off on another tangent. This is because all the characters seem to be doing just that: The more the trial progresses, the more they engage in private (and often erotic) daydreaming.

Take Hatsue, who can't stop thinking about her old flame Ishmael (Hawke) sitting in the courtroom and sending meaningful looks in her direction. Their memories go back to their first kiss at the age of 12, and a hollow cedar tree which was their special hiding place. Ishmael is recalling other vivid details of the two of them in adolescence and also of his late father (Sam Shepard), who set him up in the family newspaper business. Meanwhile, the wife of the murdered fisherman gets lost in a reverie of an especially passionate moment with her husband, conducted tastefully through some thick, cloudy glass.

Director Scott Hicks (of "Shine" fame) teams up with cinematographer Robert Richardson to create a mesmerizing sequence of exquisite visuals. Until this movie, you will never know how snow could fall on cedars in quite so many ways. It seems Hicks has a feel for weather, whether it's freezing, raining, damp or just plain chilly -- which seem to be the only choices on the island.

The overpowering sceneries and the generous use of flashbacks result in very little dialogue, befitting both the climate and the Japanese temperament. The latter, by the way, seems to hold little mystery for both Hicks and David Gutterson, author of the best-selling novel (same title) on which this pic is based. They probably realized there's precious little mystery to begin with, a fact which films like "Rising Sun" ignored.

Of course, one can get into nit-picking Japanese mode and point out all the minor cultural mistakes, but I have to warn you that they are few and far between. In fact, "Snow Falling" is a cause for celebration -- a Japanese actress finally hits Hollywood big-time, her name is spelled correctly, and she now has a host of other studio contracts in her drawer.

The other highlight is Anne Suzuki, who stars as the 12-year-old Hatsue. A Tokyo sixth-grader, Suzuki learned English on the set and sports a wily cuteness that threatens to put Britney Spears out of business. I'm telling you, all this is worth the discomfort.

"Snow Falling on Cedars" is playing at the Miyuki-za in Hibiya and other theaters.


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