At just 33-years of age, Kiki Sugino already boasts a prolific career as an actress and producer, with films like 'Hospitalité', 'Au revoir l'été', 'Odayaka', and 'Chigasaki Story' to her credit. In the past three years, she's moved into directing with 'Yokudo', 'Short Plays' and 'Kyoto Elegy'. Her latest, 'Snow Woman', is her best film yet.
'Snow Woman' begins with a black-and-white prologue as a hunter, Minokichi (Munetaka Aoki, 'Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai', the 'Rurouni Kenshin' trilogy, Martin Scorsese's 'Silence') and his older mentor, Mosaku, encounter the titular spirit during a snowstorm. Her frostbite-inducing breath kills the mentor, but spares the hunter. "If you tell anyone, I'll kill you," she whispers, and disappears into the night. Shifting to daytime and colour, he later meets the mysterious Yuki (played by director Sugino), who resembles the snow woman, and marries her. But the supernatural world haunts them, and spirits and superstition eventually impact on their rural idyll.
The film is a reinterpretation of 'Yuki-Onna', from Lafcadio Hearn's 1904 collection, 'Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things', a book of Japanese ghost stories. The film extensively revises the Hearn version of the tale, and thus avoids comparison with the best-known movie based on the same story, Masaki Kobayashi's 1965 Academy Award-nominated 'Kwaidan' (Kaidan).
Sugino directs, co-writes and plays the titular lead in her third directorial feature. Her previous films, 'Kyoto Elegy' and 'Taksu', were paradoxical modern stories dealing with relationships and the difficulty men and woman have in communicating with each other. 'Snow Woman' takes place in an alternative universe that is mix of Hearn's spirit-haunted world, striving post-war Japan and modernistic society with its eco-friendly and exotic technology.
The film at times feels like a Victorian ghost tale or gothic Hammer film. Sugino mostly avoids the overt horror clichés of influential J-Horror classics such as 'Ringu' and 'Ju On: The Grudge' - there are no jump scares to be had and no gore to flinch from. There isn't any long-haired, croaking ghoul gobbling up innocents here, just an ambiguous figure that perhaps serves to release others from the pain they are suffering. Instead, emphasis is placed on the (surprisingly erotic) relationship between Minokichi and Yuki, as well as the impact the woman has on the village in which they live.
Sugino uses this emphasis as an opportunity to show the daily life in the village - '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. Everything is steeped in ritual and repetition, from nameless shrine maidens crossing a stream, to the mechanical activities of the workers and children's exercise drills in a schoolyard.
'Snow Woman' takes place in an alternative universe that is mix of spirit-haunted world, striving post-war Japan and modernistic society with its eco-friendly and exotic technology.
It also comments on the society beyond the confines of Yuki and Minokichi's unusual bond. When the factory trumpets its new lighting technology and its owner rails against what he calls Yuki's "tainted blood," the film suddenly jumps out of its time and into ours. Yuki, we realise, is not only a conduit between the human and spirit world, progress versus nature, but also a type of immigrant, which makes her - in certain sectors of her isolated community - suspect.
Shogo Ueno's camerawork is superb, moving between Kurosawa-influenced to crisply surreal modern frames, such as the beautiful wide shot of Ume and her schoolmates practicing a martial arts routine in a yellow yard, or the boss addressing his workers in their matching uniforms on the theatrically artificial-looking factory floor. And the scoring by long-time Sugino collaborator Sow Jow is similarly varied and precise, ranging from the classically Japanese and ghostly - pure choirs and sonorous soft gongs - to the electronic.
I viewed this film at the 2017 Japanese Film Festival in Sydney, where it's screening was followed by a Q&A with Sugino and a supremely charismatic Munetaka Aoki, resplendent in a suit, open-throated shirt and thongs (who informed the audience he'd already had a few glasses of chardonnay). If the director's body of work didn't confirm my suspicions, watching her thoughtfully discuss her filmography in person did: Kiki Sugino is an intensely intelligent, elegant storyteller who is destined to make a lasting impact on Japanese independent cinema.
'Snow Woman' is beautiful, poetic and nuanced and was easily my favourite film of the festival. Highly recommended and well worth seeking out.