The Japanese folklore story of the “Snow Woman” has been told in many places, in many ways, and in many versions, but best-known is that of Lafcadio Hearn, the Greek-Irish writer who published it in his 1904 collection, “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.”

Hearn’s story about a beautiful pale-faced woman who appears to two woodcutters in the midst of a snowstorm, and leaves only the younger, handsomer one alive, is the basis for Kiki Sugino’s new film of the same title. By far the best of the three features Sugino has directed to date, “Snow Woman” screened in the competition section of last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.

The film extensively revises the Hearn version of the tale, making a comparison with the best-known movie based on the same story, Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 “Kwaidan” (Kaidan), rather beside the point.

Snow Woman (Yuki Onna)
Run Time 96 mins
Language Japanese
Opens march 4

Sugino, who co-wrote the screenplay and stars in the title role, respects the heart of the story, while setting it in an alternative universe that is mix of Hearn’s spirit-haunted world, striving postwar Japan and today’s (or tomorrow’s) society with its eco-friendly and exotic technology. She also adds other elements that are pure inventions, such as young women in kimono crossing a stream in single file for a seemingly ancient ceremony presided over by a Shinto priest.

The mash-up of eras and realities is disorienting by design, as well as quite different from the usual kaidan (Japanese ghost story), which is more often than not set in the feudal past.

Like Hearn’s story, the film begins with two woodsmen — Minokichi (Munetaka Aoki) and the older, injured Mosaku — stumbling through a snowstorm and into a mountain hut. That night, as they sleep, Mosaku is visited by the Snow Woman, who snuffs out his life as his younger companion looks on in silent horror. “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you,” she says, and disappears into the night.

The scene shifts from the spooky black-and-white of the hut to a rural landscape of daytime and color. On his way to a ferry crossing Minokichi encounters a stranger (Sugino again) who looks to be the twin of the Snow Woman. Called Yuki, she is shy, unworldly and not fearsome in the least. Minokichi invites her into his home and asks her to be his wife. They have a daughter, Ume, and enjoy a happy life together, even though Minokichi’s kindly mother (Yoshiko Miyazaki) falls ill and requires the services of the local healer, known only as Baba (Granny, played by Kumi Mizuno).

Fourteen years pass and Ume (Mayu Yamaguchi) has now grown to young womanhood. She becomes friends with Mikio (Kodai Matsuoka), the sickly grandson of the autocratic owner (Shiro Sano) of the factory where Minokichi is now employed. As we see Ume and Mikio wander into the woods together, toward the fatal hut, we recall from earlier scenes that Mikio is Mosaku’s distant relation — and that Ume is very much her mother’s daughter.

This is another kaidan set-up, but the film refrains from kaidan-like shocks and scares. Instead it tends toward the mystical, contemplative — and tragic. 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 realize, is not only a conduit between the human and spirit world, but also a type of immigrant, which makes her, in certain sectors of her isolated community, suspect.

As genre entertainment, “Snow Woman” is too diffuse, allusive and, most damning of all, gentle-spirited. But on its own terms, as a statement about the strangeness of the world and the unknowability of others (one’s spouse among them), it is quietly, mysteriously eloquent.

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