EXPECTATIONS: Something appealingly surreal, beautiful and thematically powerful.
REVIEW: Kwaidan films (literally translated as “ghost stories”) are films I was always fascinated with ever since I saw films like Ringu. Now I know that this isn’t a prime example, but it got me exploring the classic genre entries like Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, Nobuo Nakagawa’s The Ghost of Yotsuya, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan and others.
The incredibly mannered feel, the beautiful artifice of the production design, the meditative pacing and the lifeless yet brimming acting; those are just some of the many things of a Kwaidan film that draws me in.
So when I heard that director/actress Kiki Sugino, whom I’ve only seen in an acting capacity in films like Kim Ki-duk’s Time and Koji Fukada’s Au Revoir L’Ete, was making a modernization of Japanese Kwaidan folklore, I was intrigued. It also helped that the trailer for the film had me sold on the tone of the film. So does Snow Woman succeed as a throwback to the Japanese ghost stories of yore?
The film starts off in black-and-white, in a medieval setting (or maybe it doesn’t?) and we see Minokichi (Munetaka Aoki) and his aging mentor Mosaku get caught in a snowstorm. When Mosaku is too exhausted to carry on, they seek shelter in a dilapidated hut in the woods.
While they sleep, a ghostly Snow Woman (known as a yuki-onna) sneaks into the hut and gently breathes her frostbite-inducing breath on Mosaku’s face, gradually killing him. Minokichi wakes and witnesses this, but the Snow Woman (Kiki Sugino) spares him, on condition he never tells anyone what he has seen.
After an unspecified amount of time, he meets the beautiful Yuki (also Kiki Sugino) in the woods and falls in love with her. She kind of resembles the Snow Woman, but she has no background, no family, no previous life. If Minokichi knows who she is (and there might be an inkling to this), he isn’t going to talk about it to anyone. Especially her.
The two marry and have a daughter, Ume (Mayu Yamaguchi), who blossoms into a lovely teenager. But over time, unexplained deaths begin occurring in the woods in the presence of Yuki and/or Ume. And much to Minokichi’s horror, the victims are found scarred with the unmistakable look of frostbite.
Does the film stack up as a modernization of the famous ghost tale as well as being a good film in of itself? Thankfully, yes. While the script (co-written by Kiki Sugino) is faithful to the source material, Sugino adds enough flourishes and amps up the character dynamics to get her directorial stamp into the mix.
The first ten minutes of the film are absolutely stunning. The black-and-white cinematography and the swell musical score all feel like they were swiped from classic Kwaidan films and Sugino is dead-on as the titular character. All of these elements are combined to make a promising intro that foreshadows many promising elements as well as feeling like a great short film in of itself.
After the title card shows up, director Sugino starts to modernize the source material by playfully subverting audience expectations of the genre. For example, the time period the film is set. With the forest setting and houses, we are led to believe that the film is set in the Medieval era, but later in the film, we see other settings like factories and we’re now led to believe that the film is set in a war era.
Another example is how the characters interact with one another. In cases of Kwaidan films, when a person encounters a ghost, it’s usually that they are scarred for life and if they ever witness anything that would bring back memories of that encounter, they would cower in fear. But in the case of Snow Woman, when Minokichi encounters Yuki (who is a dead ringer of the Snow Woman), he recognizes the resemblance, but he doesn’t hesitate and continues to keep her accompanied to the point that the two get married and start a family.
The input of modern relationship social-isms as well as deep, seething curiosities add a certain refreshing outlook to what could have been seen as old-fashioned or esoteric to today’s audiences. Even the sex scene between the two characters (set in a onsen) is surprisingly racy in comparison to the typical Kwaidan film.
The cinematography by Shogo Ueno becomes more crisp after the title card ends, as well as the musical score by Sow Jow becomes more electronic, rather than the usual woodwind sounds that accompany the usual Kwaidan film, lending a sense of realism rather than the artifice the genre is known for.
The mediative pacing is still in place and while it does lend a chilling feel at times (especially in scenes set in the nighttime), most of the time, the pacing is utilized to gain a more intimate feel for the characters, as Sugino relies on long-takes during character moments, which allow the actors to shine.
Speaking about the actors, the leads are great in their parts that they imbue life to the characters as well as look like they belong in the period setting, unlike those who have a contemporary look. Kiki Sugino nails the look and the haunting feel as the titular character, while imbuing a sense of sympathy in her ghostly actions (another genre subversion), while making Yuki, her second role, feel more than just the trope of the supportive wife.
Aoki Munetaka is great as Minokichi, as he conveys the inner torment of fear, the contradictions of his role as the patriarch as well as being convincing as a loving father. The scenes they share together have a palpable sense of intimacy that always foreshadow a conflict that is absolutely inevitable and it pays off beautifully in the climax. The supporting cast all do fine in their roles, but Sugino and Munetaka are the most notable.
As for its flaws, for those expecting a ghost story with actual shocks and scares will be disappointed, since it never really aims for those targets. Aside from that, the most nagging flaw is the film does suffer from its storytelling ellipsis, since it does away with character backstories and motivations. But the editing and the script does make the film feel like we’re witnessing a fever dream at times, relying on what the audience should feel rather than what the audience should know.
Simple scenes of conversation are edited as if they are cut off in mid-question while scenes supposedly set in dreams are rarely ever signaled as dreams unless the score picks up. It may be a bit disorienting, alienating or even quite maddening, but it eventually becomes rewarding emotionally, thematically, and even takes flight.
Overall, Snow Woman is a great modernization of a classical Japanese ghost story, with fine performances, fantastic cinematography and a fitting musical score, but what makes the film stand out is its refreshing details and the attempts of subverting the Kwaidan genre. While the film doesn’t aim for more of a mainstream execution in terms of scares, the film has enough palpable atmosphere and filmmaking chops to make Snow Woman a film not to be examined, but to be experienced.
Great performances from the leads
Beautiful cinematography and stirring music add to the film
Great touches in refreshing and modernizing the kwaidan genre
The story is too elliptical for its own good
Those expecting scares will be disappointed
Cast: Kiki Sugino, Munetaka Aoki, Mayu Yamaguchi, Shiro Sano, Kumi Mizuno
Director: Kiki Sugino
Screenwriters: Mitsuo Shigeta, Kiki Sugino, Seigan Tominomori based on a story by Lafcadio Hearn