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Snow White Murder Case, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Will inevitably be compared to an all-time classic, and earns it."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Some of the best murder mysteries aren't really about figuring out who did it, or even about the reason; they're about stirring things up and seeing what happens. That's the deal with "The Snow White Murder Case", a movie whose use of multiple perspectives means that can't avoid comparisons to "Rashomon" even though it is very much a thing of its era. It's a slick, Twitter-era mystery with a satirical kick from one of the best filmmakers working in Japan today.

"Snow White" refers to both a brand of soap and the victim, Noriko Miki (Nanao), a tall, beautiful employee of the cosmetics company that makes the soap who was stabbed rather a lot and then burned in a national park. When she's questioned by the police, Noriko's teammate Risako Kano (Misako Renbutsu) excitedly calls her ex-boyfriend Yuji Akahoshi (Go Ayano), who works for a TV news station and takes a break from blogging about local noodle shops to live-tweet their conversation, although he mostly leaves out the names of office gossip Mi-chan (Erena Ono), manager and possible boyfriend Satoshi Shinoyama (Nobuaki Kaneko), and his ex-girlfriend Miki Shirono (Mao Inoue), last seen fleeing to Tokyo the night of the murder. It doesn't take long for both online speculation and television news reports to annoint "Ms. S" the prime suspect - or for people who know her like neighbor Yuko Tanimura (Shihori Kanjiya) and college classmate Minori Maetani (Mitsuki Tanimura) to leap to her defense - especially as Akahoshi heads to the scene to interview everyone who knew Noriko and Shirono.

Yoshihiro Nakamura directs with screenwriter Tamio Hayashi adapting Kanae Minato's novel, and I'm actually somewhat surprised this started out as a book. One of the things Nakamura and company are doing (and doing well) here is looking at the modern media landscape, which means that parts of the movie will feature a scrolling Twitter feed, while others will run through things the audience has just seen through the filter of a television news report that obscures faces and disguises voices but also strips context and goes in for sensational headlines; yet others will pop up helpful captions to describe the latest narrator. The intention isn't to overwhelm - although adding subtitles to the Twitter feed does push it close - so much as to show what's going on in a way that the audience recognizes as modern while commenting on the distortion that such an approach offers. There's some sting to it, and some moments when the repetition seems a bit unnecessary, but it's also good storytelling, keeping details from being buried in an otherwise quick-paced story.

The approach which courts subjectivity is also a good one, with the filmmakers and characters sometimes wandering seemingly quite far afield of the night of the murder, with some of Yuko's version of events going all the way back to elementary school and taking on a storybook background at times. Nakamura and company don't have the formality of Rashomon's courtroom setting, so characters are free to speculate and imagine, while others tweak them about what they must be embellishing or relating from a third person. It's natural for the audience to compare the same events from different perspectives, looking for what may be important clues at a co-worker's going-away party, but it's also intriguing to see how certain moments from Shirono's early life have an impact on her later relations with Noriko and others.

It's something that requires fine work from the cast, and they are well up to it. As the victim, Nanao gets the character most obviously likely to be seen differently, and she's quite good whether being sweet and helpful in Risako's account or the pretty but manipulative adversary Shirono sees Noriko as. Mao Inoue is even better as Shirono; often described as "plain", especially compared to the glamorous Noriko, and kind of shy, Inoue nevertheless makes a strong impression whether as a girl that the other characters didn't give much thought until becoming sure she snapped, or the pure-of-heart but naive girl her friends describe, or when she's shown not-quite-objectively as she relays her own story. It's a leading role that has to often fade into the background, and Inoue handles it well.

There's a great group surrounding them, with Go Ayano playing what might be called the present-day lead and getting a surprising amount of mileage out of the expression on Akahoshi's face as he dashes tweets off on his phone or computer, or the enthusiasm he puts into narration. One of the relatively few sequences he has that's really conventional acting has him paired with Shihori Kanjiya, who gives Yuko a great sort of bluntness as a still-attractive girl who has become a video-game playing recluse for unknown reasons. Misako Renbutsu imbues Risako with a playfulness that subtly morphs depending on the perspective, as does the relative awkwardness and jerkiness of Nobuaki Kanekko's Shinoyama.

And while this is an odd thing to say about a murder mystery, this is a very funny movie at times. Nakamura's reputation for quirky, optimistic movies like Fish Story, Golden Slumbers, and A Boy and His Samurai had me a bit worried by the dark subject matter here, but he not only channels it into pointed satire but some just brilliantly tension-delaying moments. There's an epic pratfall in here that few would put in this movie but which works perfectly, gags both bright and black, and a moment when audiences will laugh at the potential of a scene going a lot darker than it winds up being.

I really shouldn't be surprised that a Yoshihiro Nakamura movie winds up being one of my favorites in the festival by now, because he's on a ridiculous roll, actually cranking out movies faster than North American festivals can book them. "The Snow White Murder Case" is looking like one of the best in a pretty great body of work for the last five years, and I'm starting to wonder just what he'll have to do for American distributors to catch on.

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originally posted: 07/31/14 03:49:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Yoshihiro Nakamura

Written by
  Tamio Hayashi

  Mao Inoue
  Ayano Go
  Misako Renbutsu
  Nobuaki Kaneko
  Erena Ono

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