There’s no question that Shine director Scott Hicks’s Snow Falling on Cedars is well-named. The weather — not only snow but fog and rain and looming clouds over the glorious landscapes of San Pedro Island in coastal Washington state — is undoubtedly the star of the show. Unfortunately, this is because the weather is mainly what it is possible to pay attention to through the confusing cutting and time- shifting of the main story — though the weather’s magnificence does not vary enough for it to be of much use in sorting out whether the action is taking place in the present or in flashback to the near past or in flashback to the distant past or in flashback within flashback. Nor are there enough shots that do not take place with snow falling on cedars in them to be of much use in establishing which, of those that do, are which.
Not, frankly, that it is much worth the effort it takes to sort the film’s confusing time sequences out. We get the essentials right enough. A local fisherman is knocked off his boat and drowns. There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest that Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a Japanese- American resident of the island, who may have had a motive to kill him, was on board his boat that night. It is only a year or two since the Second World War ended and the island’s Japanese population, who had been interned during the war, are still not liked or trusted. It begins to look as if a kangaroo court will render summary justice. But the fearless young proprietor of the island’s lone newspaper, Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), sets out to discover the truth — which there are no prizes for guessing.
What makes Ishmael’s efforts the more piquant are the remarkable facts that (a) he has lost an arm to enemy action by the Japanese and (b) he is still in love with his Japanese childhood sweetheart, Hatsuo Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh), who dumped him in order to marry none other than the defendant, Kazuo. In other words, the film has no point except to demonstrate what a splendid, loving, forgiving, unprejudiced sort of chap Ishmael is. Let us stipulate that. Let us further stipulate that the farmers and fishermen of rural Washington State in the 1940s were regrettably liable to make racially-based judgments about people and that they could even be considered complicit in the nation’s decision to intern its citizens of Japanese descent in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Does this surprise anyone? Do we learn anything useful from it?
I’m afraid not. By holding up for our veneration, Merchant-Ivory fashion, the one character among these “fools in old-style hats and coats” (as Philip Larkin puts it) who is most like our comfortable, pacific, unthreatened, turn-of-the-century selves, namely the admirably unprejudiced young Ishmael, the film invites us not to involve ourselves productively in the fictional lives we observe but merely to feel superior to them, and to congratulate ourselves on that superiority. What makes it worse is that Ishmael is a deep-thinking journalist who takes upon himself the sufferings of the world, agonizing: “Sometimes I think unfairness is a part of things.. . Maybe I should write an article about unfairness, and all the unfair things people do to each other.”
At one point, this young puppy takes his father (Sam Shepard) to task for falling short, in 1941, of the highest standards of 1990s multiculturalism. “That’s not journalism,” he says; “that’s propaganda.” I thought of that line during the seemingly endless shots, silent but accompanied by solemn music, of the Japanese deportations, which Hicks was obviously milking for all the pathos he could get out of them. That’s not film-making; that’s propaganda.