Ghost Woman, the debut feature film from Kiki Sugino, draws inspiriation from Japanese folklore and the classic story of Kaidan. For some viewers, the film may feel overly familiar but it’s a charming, fresh-faced, and self-aware take on an old story. Sugino draws inspiration from the two previous film adaptations, but allows her own eerie lyrical version to grow naturally from the story.
Sugino’s adaption follows the original story pretty closely, opening with the fateful night the Snow Woman finds two desperate woodcutters sheltering in a cabin in the height of a blizzard. After kissing, and claiming the life of, the older man, she binds the younger woodcutter to secrecy, swearing to kill him if he ever tells anyone about the deadly apparition.
Kudos to Sugino, Snow Woman is surprisingly scary when its not picking its way through a stark, romantic drama. Tension comes from the strangest places purely because of how sedate the film is; how easily it makes you relax.That opening sequence is tense as Hell and from there the film keeps its scares on the back bench as the story naturally progresses across the days, months, and years. Sugino plays with memory, confusing audience and characters alike by playing multiple characters, including the Snow Woman herself. The poor woodsman, ever dubious as to whether he has really fallen in love with the ghost he met in his youth, is put through a bit of a farce. Though it never plays like that. The film counts down to the inevitable moment he will divulge his story, and seal his own doom.
Western audiences’ lack of familiarity with the East Asian approach to ghost stories could be in for a shock. Like King Wu’s Legend of the Mountain, Snow Woman plays with the tangibility of ghosts. Their existence isn’t gawked at and shocked over, instead surprise comes from a relatively everyday approach to the supernatural. Its a romance across years, a tale of revenge with more of an eye to the bittersweet than the horrifying. Painting everything in high-contrast black and white gives it a poetic aesthetic, and a delicate nostalgic tone which embraces the long history this particular text has with the Japanese cinematic conscious. That along the disorientating and deliberate muddling of the female characters makes everything feel a bit dreamy and, for want of a better word, dubious. In basic terms, it feels like a memory (or folk tale) being retold, and that’s a really interesting effect to maintain from start to gorgeous finish.
J-Horror fans will surely find this Snow Woman’s poetic approach a disappointment, but there’s a lot to fall in love with. Expect poetic romance and accidental chills, not outright adrenaline-fuelled terror.
Dir. Kiki Sugino
Stars. Kiki Sugino, Munetaka Aoki, Kumi Mizuno