Red Snow (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]


Memory is an elusive truth in Sayaka Kai’s hauntingly tragic debut feature, Red Snow, a thriller centered on a 30-year-old unsolved crime. Red Snow is a film that attempts to depict the fleeting nature of memory through the lens of trauma and moral ambiguity, muddying the waters between subjectivity and objectivity. First time writer-director Kai manages to deliver an effective story that delights in its own idiosyncrasies, even if, at times, it forces the suspense by overindulging in old horror and mystery tropes.

The film opens in a blurry, foggy night where a kid is chasing his younger brother through the heavy snow. He loses his way in the dark and when he looks up, his brother has disappeared. Breathing heavily and accompanied by a bone-chilling soundtrack, his eyes land on a red pool of blood next to an eerie-looking house, as the recollection dissolves to 30 years later, into the present-day life of Kazuki Shirakawa (Masatoshi Nagase). Kazuki has lived alone for 30 years with the guilt of not remembering what happened the night of his younger brother’s disappearance. The case was never solved, and the one woman briefly suspected of kidnapping, Sanae Eto (Yui Natsukawa), was let go due to lack of evidence. It is uncertain how much (if any) Kazuki witnessed of the incident at the time, though it is obvious that the event still haunts him. 

Kazuki’s motivation to remember is rekindled when a journalist, Shoho Kodachi (Arata Iura), arrives in town to research the seemingly forgotten case for a newspaper article. Being the newcomer in town, Shoho also serves as a convenient vehicle for exposition, as some of his interactions with others seem to be only for the benefit of the audience. Shoho informs Kazuki that he has discovered evidence that may further incriminate the woman originally suspected for the kidnapping of Kazuki’s brother. Furthermore, her daughter, Sayuri (played by Nahana) still lives in town, working as a cleaner and, possibly, a prostitute. Kazuki and Shoho set out to meet Sayuri with the hope of getting her to reveal the truth but find that she’s not so eager to cooperate.

The plot of Red Snow is somewhat complex, with a lot of details to consider. Director Sayaka Kai manages to keep the story straight through the consistent use of flashbacks that contextualize events in the present and add a stylistic flair to the fragmented narrative. The mystery unfolds in a piecemeal fashion, allowing for a great deal of character development to take place in between. The flashback scenes of Sayuri’s childhood, for instance, are some of the most memorable and impactful moments of the film. In sharp contrast to Kazuki’s confused memories, Sayuri’s recollections possess a remarkable clarity and logic, showing a different side of trauma. Both characters are victims of the same evil, though with significantly diverging consequences. This is largely underscored by the excellent performances of Nahana and Nagase, both of who play their characters with a stillness and emotional inadequacy that clearly emphasizes the hopelessness of their downtrodden lives. 

A film like Red Snow operates on a very thin line. The filmmakers must slowly undo the complexity of the plot and make it clear to the audiences, while also preserving the force of mystery and suspense. This is perhaps where director Kai’s lack of experience shows. On quite a few occasions, particularly in flashbacks, the director chooses to withhold information from the audience only because it is inconvenient to do otherwise. As a result, tension feels fabricated, and the mystery loses its grip due to overextension. There is a minor frustration that the film builds up as it goes on. If the entire riddle would be solved by simply moving the camera six inches to the left, then it is perhaps better to reconsider the riddle than to keep the camera still – especially when a clear point of view has been established. 

Nevertheless, the sin is forgivable since the director’s cryptic and disorienting approach is meant to mirror the themes of memory and subjective truth with which the characters struggle. Those who are patient and attentive with Red Snow will certainly appreciate its philosophical ambitions and excellent performances. The central mystery does not quite strike a perfect balance, but it holds up enough to let the strength of the characters emerge through the plot. Ultimately, the crux of the story lies in Kazuki’s and Sayuri’s escape from their past and present tormentors, and one way or another, the film grants them retribution.

Red Snow is showing at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 23.

John Atom