Snowy Road (눈길) – ★★★☆☆

Snowy Road (눈길)

Snowy Road (눈길)

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Yeong-ae (Kim Sae-ron (김새론), the arrogant daughter of a rich man in the village, studies hard to learn the language of the hostile force and be accepted within the ranks. Poverty-stricken Jong-boon (Kim Hyang-ki (김향기), meanwhile, must contend herself with menial chores until the possibility of marrying out of hardship arises. Yet when the Japanese forces come looking for girls to be ‘comfort women’ – or rather, sexual slaves – financial status does not enter consideration and both youngsters are abducted into a life of horrific servitude.

In the present day Jong-boon (Kim Yeong-ok (김영옥), now an elderly woman, lives alone in a dilapidated part of town. Noticing that her teenage neighbour Eun-soo (Cho Soo-hyang (조수향) is in trouble, she takes it alone herself to help the girl and in doing so is forced to confront the traumatic experiences of her past.

Yeong-ae and Jong-boon are abducted and forced to provide sexual services to Japanese troops

Yeong-ae and Jong-boon are abducted and forced to provide sexual services to Japanese troops

Snowy Road originally aired as a two-part television drama, yet for the purpose of a cinematic release the episodes have been edited together to create a powerful testament to the horrific abuses Korean women suffered during the Japanese occupation. Despite a large number of films and documentaries exploring the subject matter over the years, upon receiving its world premiere at Jeonju Film Festival 2015, Snowy Road left audiences sobbing at the depiction of two of Korea’s youngest and most celebrated actresses reenacting the torture so many women suffered at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army. While the film does not always escape the production shortcomings and melodramatic trappings of K-drama, Snowy Road is a particularly emotional piece that strongly resonates.

Director Lee Na-jeong and writer Yoo Bo-ra have crafted an impressive tribute to women’s suffering in both the past and present through the non-linear story, cutting between the two periods to reinforce how women’s rights have changed and how far they have yet to go. For scenes in the past, director Lee conveys the atrocities committed to Korean women through the abduction, imprisonment and abuses Yeong-ae and Jong-boon endure at the hands of the Japanese. Yet in the present a rather different set of injustices are dealt with, as elderly Jong-boon is routinely treated with disrespect while her young charge Eun-soo, alone and in need of money, becomes easy prey for wealthy middle-aged men. It is difficult to state how brave director Lee and writer Yoo are for examining the abuses of the past (Japanese men) and present (Korean men) and depicting them parallel to each other through the narrative, especially given the current highly conservative and patriarchal political climate, as well as with anti-Japanese sentiment so high following Prime Minister Abe’s denial that the incidents ever occurred. That is not to say that the crimes are in any way equal – rather, that Lee and Yoo’s bravery comes from not over-simplifying the debates put forth as purely the result of an external ‘other’, but also critically looking within contemporary Korean culture to explore the plights that effect modern Korean women. Snowy Road presents the issues well, impressively articulating that women need to stand united against injustices past and present to draw attention to their plight, rather than internalise guilt and shame.

Elderly Jong-boon and Eun-soo form a unique bond through their experiences

Elderly Jong-boon and Eun-soo form a unique bond due to their experiences

While Snowy Road ambitiously tackles such sensitive issues competently, the film consistently struggles to escape its origins, existing somewhere between a TV drama and film but not quite fitting into either category. Cinematography of landscapes are generally composed with skill and appear cinematic, yet when faced with more intimate moments or generating tension the budget limitations become increasingly clear. As such crucial scenes, most explicitly apparent at the internment camp where Yeong-ae and Jong-boon are abused, lack the potency and sense of urgency that a film of this nature should contain.

The film also falls into cliche TV drama territory as the narrative attempts to come to a close. Melodrama has long been a feature of Korean TV and film output so it comes as little surprise that such generic devices arise in Snowy Road, however a film dealing with the subject matter of comfort women hardly requires such heavy-handed efforts to evoke tears from the audience. The story is tragic enough without additional manipulative melodramatic tropes, and their inclusion does a disservice to those who experienced such horrific trauma.

However that said, director Lee has chosen a particularly solid cast to express the issues being put forth. Kim Sae-ron is really developing into a wonderfully talented actress, and following her stellar performance in A Girl at My Door she exudes the icy arrogance of her character in Snowy Road delightfully. Playing off Kim’s cold demeanour is no small effort yet Kim Hyang-ki (Thread of Lies) is especially likeable as the young and warm-hearted Jong-boon. The actresses have established their careers with monikers such as ‘the nation’s daughters’ which undoubtedly serves to generate even more emotional resonance. The actresses in the present are somewhat shortchanged by the script yet Cho Soo-hyang, who scored Best Actress at Busan Film Festival 2014 for Wild Flowers, and Kim Yeong-ok acquit themselves admirably.

Jong-boon and Yeong-ae attempt to flee the internment camp

Jong-boon and Yeong-ae attempt to flee the internment camp

Verdict:

Snowy Road is a highly emotional charged film about ‘comfort women’ and the horrific abuses they suffered during the Japanese occupation. Yet director Lee Na-jeong and writer Yoo Bo-ra impressively combine the sensitive subject matter with the issues faced by contemporary women, and deserve credit for it. While the film often struggles to escape its TV drama origins, Snowy Road is a powerful and resonating story on a vital topic.

★★★☆☆

16th Jeonju International Film Festival (제16회 전주국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews
Director's CUT (디렉터스 컷)

Director’s CUT (디렉터스 컷) – ★★☆☆☆

Director's CUT (디렉터스 컷)

Director’s CUT (디렉터스 컷)

Independent filmmaker Hae-gang (Park Jung-pyo (박중표) has worked hard for years, helming several notable productions that have earned him a respectable reputation. However his latest endeavour is proving more difficult than most, largely due to his uncompromising, aggressive, and occasionally downright rude attitude on set. Worse still, his inability to distance himself from the stresses of production generate conflict with his long-suffering girlfriend, creating distance between them. With both time and money running out, and crew and companions turning away from him, Hae-gang is forced to make tough choices that could ultimately challenge his director’s cut.

Director's CUT (디렉터스 컷)

The director struggles to get the perfect shot

Director’s CUT (디렉터스 컷) is a welcome addition in portraying the difficulties afflicting filmmakers. The great strength of the drama lies in the portrayal of such struggles with a great sense of realism, from minor conflicts on set of changing camera shots to larger challenges of creative control with external agencies. Writer/director Park Joon-bum (박준범) has done a remarkable job of exploring a multitude of facets related to the independent industry, even extending beyond production based problems to highlight the corruption within film festivals, a potent and brave move indeed. Also of note is the manner in which Hae-gang is conveyed as his own worst enemy. The frustrated filmmaker is so utterly devoted to his art that he unwittingly destroys relationships with those closest to him, and director Park constructs his protagonist well as passionate yet flawed perfectionist desperate for creative control.

Hae-gang's intense passion for filmmaking creates conflict in his professional and private life

Hae-gang’s intense passion for filmmaking creates conflict in his professional and private life

However that said, Hae-gang is also a quite unlikable protagonist throughout the entirety of Director’s CUT. Fighting to retain his creative vision is one thing, yet the filmmaker constantly creates unnecessary conflict amongst his peers for little reason, stubbornly arguing over ridiculous matters in the name of pride and ambition. Worse still, Hae-gang’s treatment of his sweet and caring girlfriend is frankly awful, and it’s a little puzzling why she endures such hurtful conduct. This would be fine if Hae-gang evolved as a character during the course of the narrative, yet such enlightenment never dawns on him even when it is quite obvious that he needs to change. As such it’s particularly difficult to feel empathy with his plight for Hae-gang is, for the majority of the running time, a contemptible jerk.

It’s acutely ironic that while Hae-gang is responsible for impairing his film, Director’s CUT also suffers due to similar reasons. Hae-gang’s instance for control of the final cut seems to mirror that of director Park; within the film Hae-gang is determined to employ somewhat superfluous scenes much to the annoyance of his editor, while director Park does the same in Director’s CUT much to the frustration of the audience. A scene in which the camera operator forgets the correct equipment could have easily been conveyed through a few failed attempts, for example, yet by the sixth error tedium sets in as well as the desire for a more scrupulous editor.

Hae-gang comes into conflict with a producer over certain scenes and the final cut

Hae-gang comes into conflict with a producer over certain scenes and the final cut

Verdict:

Director’s CUT is an interesting drama exploring the difficulties of working as an independent filmmaker. The sense of realism and the far-reaching industry issues explored by writer/director Park Joon-bum form the core strength of the film, yet it is greatly impaired by a central protagonist who is wholly inconsiderate, rude and very difficult to empathise with. Lack of character arc notwithstanding, Director’s CUT is also ironically hampered by the need for more stringent editing, resulting in a film that is interesting rather than compelling.

★★☆☆☆

Festival News Jeonju International Film Festival (제15회 전주국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews