Red Snow (2019) review [Camera Japan Festival 2019]

Introduction

If someone would mention Sayaka Kai in a conversation about Japanese cinema, most people would not know who you’re talking about. This would not be so surprising as Kai’s oeuvre, up until date only consisted of short-films. For those who surprisingly have heard about her will know her because of the acclaim the short-films (Border Line (2001), Pellet (2000)) she co-directed and her short movie Odine’s Curse received.

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Review

When Kodachi (Arata Iura), a reporter, arrives in a small town, he has no other goal than to uncover the truth about the unsolved disappearance of Takumi thirty years ago. Kodachi suspects that Sayuri Eto (Nahana), the daughter of the prime suspect Sanae (Yui Natsukawa), must know more. But, just like her mother 30 years ago, she has no wish to cooperate. In his search for the truth, Kodachi also meets Kazuki Shirakawa (Masatoshi Nagase), the older brother of the disappeared Takumi. While Kazuki, initially, expresses no interest for the truth, for what really a happened, he eventually decides to contact and visit the reporter. At Kodachi’s place, Kazuki hears for the first time that, at that time, three men disappeared around Sayuri’s mother.

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Red Snow, based on a true story, functions as a slow burning psychological thriller, concerning nothing other than the notion of truth. But before delving into what this narrative evokes about truth, we need to look how Red Snow approaches the vehicle by which truth becomes articulated: speech. As Kai’s narrative resolves around an unsolved case, it is not unsurprising that the complexity of speech plays a fundamental role in the narrative’s unfolding. More concretely, the narrative constitutes an interesting play with the said and the unsaid. The said functions here either as carrier of one’s fictionalized ‘truth’, supporter of lies protecting one’s ego – lies hiding subjective wounds and trauma related to truth, or as mere gossip. If the said concerns all this, the question then becomes what does the unsaid can communicate?

That the said and the unsaid enter a complex relation is already subtly evoked by Kodachi’s statement that Eto has remained silent about her presence at the crime scene. While silence can be contrasted with speech, one should not fail to notice that this silence, due to its presence within a speech-relation, is revealed as ‘speaking’ – a confirmation that some unsaid is forced to remain hidden. The fact that the unsaid not only correlates with silence but also with the lie further highlights this complexity. In Red Snow both cases are shown to be sensibly communicative of what remains unsaid or what one wants to keep unsaid.

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Suspicion, as Kodachi’s conversations with Uehara (Ken Yoshizawa) beautifully show, is fundamentally mediated by speech. All fragments of speech – e.g. concerning her position of silence – and gossip concerning Sayuri Eto’s character infuse her image with suspicion. Beyond the given that Eto is seen, within her workplace for instance, as strange and scary, can we not say that suspicion, as evoked through speech, drives Kodachi’s search – a suspicion that only finds/generates suspicion (Narra-note 1)?

It is, first and foremost, due to the narrative’s complex approach to the said and the unsaid and the birth of suspicion that results thereof, that Red Snow wonderfully succeeds in arousing the spectator’s desire to know and his desire to see something approximating the truth uncovered (Psycho-note 1).

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Having said that, we can finally return to the notion of truth and its relation to speech. Shirakawa’s reluctance to know the truth, his choice to allow the truth to remain silent, evokes a tension between speech and the unsaid, as that what remains silent. While one sensibly feels that is only speech that can bring forth truth, albeit truth marked by the speaker’s subjectivity, silence is implied as a support for hiding the traumatic unsaid. Kodachi’s intention to uncover the truth opens the lid of Shirakawa’s otherwise composed subject – a lid never fully closed, feeding nightmares circling around the empty space of Shirakawa’s subjective implication. The empty space must be read as referring to a traumatic unsaid that is repressed (Psycho-note 2).

The act of keeping silent is also practiced by Eto – just like her mother 30 years ago. While this silence generates suspicions – for Kodachi, Shirakawa, and also for the spectator, this silence seems partially a function of her traumatic past – a subjective truth corroborated by the various flashbacks (Narra-note 2). The situation of neglect, a situation of being treated worse than trash, that these flashbacks sketch, do not fail to affect the spectator.

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It is only through the confrontation to Shirakawa’s wanting to know and Eto’s silence that the notion of truth is truly put into question. Does the Truth exist? Must truth not always be narrativized – put into speech and into a subjective narrative? Does the narrative not subtly show that the truth is ever fragmented, that the truth of the crime does not coincidence with the truth of one’s subjective implication (Narra-note 3, Psycho-note 3)? Does finding truth as such lead to subjective healing? If one understands the problematic and fragmented dimension of truth, the violent consequences of an obsession with the Truth so beautifully framed by the narrative becomes so much more disconcerting (Narra-note 4, Narra-note 5, Narra-note 6).

One should not fail to sense that the narrative spaces are generally marked by a sensible emptiness and a sense of social disconnection. When characters traverse the coastal area, walk though their dwelling or workplace, or travel through town, their presence is marked by a visual presence of emptiness – an emptiness accentuated by the minimalistic and often subtle sound-design – the sounds of the sea, the sounds of polishing cups, …. etc. Even when speech-relations or interactions are framed, something of an (subjective) emptiness remains present. The resounding of such subjective emptiness is most movingly evoked in the hauntingly beautiful scene between Eto and Shirakawa in the snowy woods.

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Even though fixed moments are present – notably to focus on facial expression or speech-interactions, the cinematography of Red Snow remains a fluid and dynamic affair, due to the narrative reliance on temperate spatial movement and following movement. As temporally long shots are often used in composing this narrative, it is not uncommon to see, within a shot, one or both forms of camera movements mixed with fleeting fixity (Cine-note 1).

Within the composition of the narrative, flashbacks have an important role. While these scenes allow the spectator to explore certain fragments of what happened 30 years ago, one should not expect to meet the Truth. One of the narrative’s strongest point is to be found in its refusal of showing the truth. This may be anti-climactic for some – and in fact it is, but it is only through this anti-climax that the fundamental subjective dimension of truth and lie is able to become sensibly evoked.

Through a thoughtful approach to lighting, a subdued but natural lighting that roots many shots in various shades of darkness, the dreary narrative spaces of Red Snow come to evoke a lingering pessimism and a seemingly unescapable hopelessness. Despite the different shades of brown and the many gradations of darkness marking the narrative spaces, the narrative does succeed in finding a way to subtly compose with colours, creating some hauntingly beautiful shots by artfully contrasting colours (e.g. whites and reds). But even so, every colour is, by being swallowed by the powerful insistence of visual dreariness, turned into a dirty and muddied presence.

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Red Snow extends its minimalistic approach also in its integration of musical accompaniment. While music is regularly applied to support the unfolding of the narrative, the music is often reduced to a composition of strange and slightly disconcerting sounds. The hollow and dull sounds are sometimes so subtle that the spectator won’t notice that the tension or the feelings of suspicions marking a certain cinematographical composition, find their origin in these strange sounds.

With its dreary and downright depressing atmosphere – no ray of sunshine to be seen, Red Snow ventures, in a psychological way, into the complex domain of truth. While this may put some people off, those that give the narrative a chance will become captivated by its moving evocation of the tension between speech and truth – a conflict sensibly highlighted by the evocative anti-climax. Red Snow might be only Sayaka Kai’s first feature-length narrative, but what she has crafted is truly impressive.

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Notes

Cine-note 1: In some cases, the movement after the fixed pause is different than the one before. In this way, the narrative succeeds in turning a floating spatial shot into a subtle moving shot.

Narra-note 1: Note that the position of Sayuri Eto and her mother is structurally the same. Beyond the fact that they are both experienced as scary, the suspicion once surrounding the mother now surrounds the daughter.

Narra-Note 2: What’s also great about the narrative is that various acts become equivocal due to a repetition of signifiers. When Takashi Takuma (Koichi Sato), who lives together with Sayuri, threatens Kodachi and Kazuki, he associates Sayuri with fire, a connection bringing the past in remembrance. The making explicit of this connection is not without implying a possible element of truth.   

Narra-note 3: When Shirakawa contacts Kodachi, he does not aim to unveil the truth of his own subjective implication, but wants to find an answer, a truth, that might ‘heal’ him.

Narra-note 4: It is not so much the Truth as Kazuki’s obsession with the Truth that derails him.

Narra-note 5: The narrative subtly shows that the truth as such solves nothing on a subjective level.

Narra-note 6: The revelation of an aspect of truth can be read in two ways. First, if this element of truth is true, it does not cover the whole truth about the crime. Secondly, if this truth is a lie, it nevertheless functions as truth for Kazuki.

Psycho-note 1: The narrative also shows – see the car-scene with Kodachi and Sayuri – the fact that signifiers hurt, because they resound something, something linked with truth, that one, in this case Sayuri, does not want to or can accept.

Psycho-note 2: What Kazuki represses is his own implication in the death of his brother.

Psycho-note 3: The question thus becomes what to do, subjectively, with the truth?

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