It is difficult for me to find the right words to say about 1999’s adaptation of Snow Falling on Cedars, now available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory. The musical score and cinematography blew me away. A day later and I’m still ruminating about shots and moments that struck me. It’s a tense thriller told with a large cast of interesting characters and a compelling central mystery.
Honestly, the only negative critique I have about the film is that it could be a little shorter with some of the sex scenes removed. Only two are really necessary, the others are just a bit much. Also, I find it just a little unrealistic that two teenagers / young adults would be able to have sex inside of an oak tree — especially when it’s conveyed that the space looked quite small for the both of them when they were considerably younger. Seems uncomfortable.
But seriously, the acting is great, although the narrative’s primary characters — Hatsue (Youki Kudoh) and Susan Marie (Arija Bareikis) — are so pretty that they’re distracting. Although she’s only in a few scenes, Bareikis does an awesome job as the angry widow, and any scene with Kudoh is a highlight Overall, casting is spot-on, with Rick Yune (as Kabuo), Max von Sydow and a young Ethan Hawke rounding out the cast nicely — even if Hawke’s character is the film’s weakest element. I understand why he’s a central part of the plot in regard to intertwining characters and relationships, and understand the importance and complexity of his Ishmael and Hatsue being past mixed-race lovers; I just wish the film focused on him a little less, and the obsession Ishmael develops toward Hatsue is frustrating to watch. Ishmael’s choice to delay turning in evidence that clears Kabuo’s name due to that obsession is certainly more annoying than sympathetic.
I loved the film’s investigation flashbacks, however, and seeing the web of character backstories interacting with one another. The thriller-mystery and crime-fiction aspects of the movie are definitely the film’s strongest. The drama adds good context and depth to characters and relationships, but again, the romance short-circuits in its over-reliance on dull sex scenes. It’s also disappointing to see no relationship development between any of the romantic couples; when we are introduced to any married couples or to Ishmael and Hatsue, their feelings for each other or romantic / sexual relationship are already established. I would have liked to see Ishmael actively falling in love with Hatsue, or Hatsue falling in love with Kabuo. While the latter relationship seems like a happy one, we are never shown anything before their wedding day, so it is unclear whether Hatsue actually loves him and wants to be with him, or if it is more like an arranged marriage.
Snow Falling on Cedars gave me the same feeling one gets when finishing a book you’ve been reading for some time — that tensing in your gut of an adventure being over, and an uncertainty of what to do with yourself. A film has never fully had this effect on me before when I have not read the source material, and it’s a nice feeling.
The new collector’s edition release from Shout! Factory includes a beautiful 4K restoration of the film, as well as two new documentaries tracking both the creation of the film and the new restoration work completed for this release.