The setting of Sayaka Kai’s debut feature, Red Snow, effectively does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing the dismal atmosphere that the film attempts to use for intrigue.Visual stylist Kai wrings this lifeless locale – set in the snowy doldrums of a nameless coastal town that has long been abandoned by any form of industry or progress – for all the gloom its worth, creating a sickly looking film where, despite all the snow, one can only think of grey.
It’s here that we learn about the unsolved murder of a local boy that stands as a temporal stopping point for its history, as if the town could never move past this traumatic moment and has been stagnant ever since. I can assume Kai was aiming to set this case up as one of those local tragedies in which it clearly takes something from this community and damages it irrevocably, but her execution leaves something to be desired narratively.
The cold case is finally reopened by a reporter, fittingly someone outside of the town’s ethos, who finds himself mysteriously drawn to the case’s decades-long inactivity and lack of interest. Ostensibly Shogo Kodachi (Arata Iura) travels to the isolated town for research on a writing project about the disappearance, but his involvement inadvertently unleashes the repression that the townsfolk were harboring for it; things get much more complicated from there.
His prying into the case gets him into abrasive contact with the brother of the victim (Masatoshi Nagase), whose sense of guilt over the crime has effectively left him a desolate loner hoping desperately that he can move on one day. Likewise, a heavy fixture of the film is Sayrui Eto, the daughter of the case’s primary suspect and whose refusal to talk to Shogo or Kazuki, the brother, exasperates the trauma at the core of this case. Inevitably, the blind search for any kind of truth consumes most of the cast of characters and brings this long-dormant, unspoken pain to the forefront.
On paper, Red Snow has the makings of a powerful parable about digging up the past and finally speaking about one’s trauma, but unfortunately Kai’s plot employs a repetitive and surface-level approach to this concept. The showcased investigation mainly entails Shogo orbiting the lives of these broken individuals and periodically voicing his disbelief as to how they shirk wanting to know the truth behind their torment and bringing closure to this case. It could be a slow-burn tactic, but the film is so slugglishly paced that any kind of revelation that could come from the process is guaranteed to be not worth it.
The mystery itself is poorly conveyed to the audience, as well, with much of the details being relayed through hazy, often muddled flashbacks that incur more questions than answers. This, coupled with Kai’s visual treatment of the material, makes Red Snow a self-serious exercise without any of the gravitas or follow-through to back it up.
It is not difficult to get lost in the mystery of the cold case, but oddly, this confusion doesn’t stem from the complexity of the case – just how poorly it is laid out for the audience. Developments and twists are teased for the audience, but, with Red Snow lacking a solid structure to grasp onto, these become moot revelations. And lacking that satisfaction that comes from curiosity-dousing revelations makes the film an uneventful, somber affair without much to hook your interest. The cast may be strong at portraying characters’ repressed emotions just lingering beneath a cold facade and work off each other well, but without a good mystery to hold them together, it feels all for naught.
As a debut, Red Snow is great in concept but lacking in its execution. Stylistically, Sayaka Kai proves herself more than capable of handling the emotional core of her traumatic fiction. If it weren’t for the film’s jumbled handling of that fiction, however, Red Snow could have been much more than a self-serious disappointment.