‘Snow Woman’ (‘Yuki-onna’): Film Review | Tokyo 2016

Tokyo Intl. Film Festival - SNOW WOMAN -Still 1 -H 2016  (FILMFEST USE ONLY)
Courtesy of ©Snow Woman Film Partners
A frosty, melancholy tale of the supernatural.

Korean-Japanese actress and director Kiki Sugino taps Japanese folklore in a timeless ghost story.

Beautiful to look at and strangely haunting, the poetic Snow Woman recounts the folk tale of a young woodsman who marries a beauty he meets in the forest, only to wonder who she really is. In her third feature, Korean-Japanese actress and director Kiki Sugino taps Japanese folklore as recounted by writer Lafcadio Hearn in his story Yuki-onna about a mysterious woman in white, whose icy breath brings death. It was previously filmed by director Masaki Kobayashi as one episode of his 1965 ghost film omnibus Kwaidan, which won the Special Jury Prize in Cannes and was nominated for a foreign language Oscar. Sugino takes both sources into account in an eeriely filmed and scored fable, exotic enough to burst out of the festival forest into a limited art house run. J-horror fans may find it too tame and lyrical.

At 32, Sugino has already been dubbed the muse of independent Asian cinema. Her previous work as a director, Kyoto Elegy and Taksu, were paradoxical modern stories dealing with relationships and the difficulty men and woman have in communicating with each other. In comparison, Snow Woman is a big leap back into film and narrative tradition, even if it has been updated in subtle ways – the settings and music, for example. But the same theme of sadness and non-communication returns in this story of a man unable to share a major life experience, even with his wife, due to a woman’s threat. 

When the young hunter Minokichi (Munetaka Aoki) and his elderly companion Mosaku are forced to spend a night in the woods during a snowstorm, they take refuge in an abandoned hut. During the night, Minokichi wakes up and is terrified to see a ghostly woman bend over Mosaku and breathe in his face, killing him on the spot. Then she turns her fierce eyes on the boy, but spares his life on the condition that he never to tell a soul about what he has seen.

Years later, he meets the beautiful Yuki in the woods and falls in love with her. She kind of resembles the Snow Woman (Sugino plays both parts), but the real clue to her identity is that she has no background, no family, no previous life. If Minokichi knows who she is, he isn’t talking about it – even to her.

They marry and have a daughter, Ume (Mayu Yamaguchi), who grows into a lovely teenager. Inexplicable deaths begin occurring in the woods in the presence of Yuki and/or Ume. To Minokichi's horror, the victims are found scarred with frostbite.

Though she sticks close to Hearn’s version of the story, Sugino and her co-writers inject some interesting nuances in the character of the icy spirit. Far from being an evil witch, she seems to use her killing breath almost as euthanasia on ailing bodies that can’t hang on any longer; at least, she lends fate a hand. As in most folk tales, psychology isn’t the main concern, and the film doesn’t answer questions about what made Yuki come out of the forest, marry a mortal and raise a family. Rather, the story resonates on a deeper level.

Though the film is quite captivating and successful on its own terms, it risks all in a genre that has attracted the greatest directors of Japanese cinema. The piercing, bittersweet poetry and lyricism of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain), in which a humble potter is seduced by the noble but ethereal Lady Wakasa, springs to mind. The present story has similarities, but here we’re in another ballpark. For one thing, Snow Woman doesn’t attempt to create a supernatural universe through the photography and art direction, and instead underlines the reality of its woodsy setting, which is supplemented by scenes in a contemporary schoolyard and a factory.  

The poetic effects occasionally get out of hand, like the scene in which the women weave red threads through the trees that all too obviously represent the thread of life. More effectively lyrical are the natural sound effects, the satisfying silence of falling snow, and Sow Jow’s remarkable score using modern music inspired by Japanese tradition. Shoto Ueno’s cinematography, switching between black and white and color, along with the carefully artistic framing and compositions, create an elegant chilled mood.

Production company: Wa Entertainment
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
Producers: Kousuke Ono, Daichi Monden
Director of photography: Shogo Ueno
Production designer: Masami Tanaka
Music: Sow Jow
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (competition)
95 minutes