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No dancing penguins here or a master chef rat, only real animals and
As Kichitaro Negishi's "What the Snow Brings" begins, the starting gates of a racecourse fly open, but no sleek horses fly through them. Instead, enormous draft-horses, weighing a ton, stumble on, dragging half-ton iron sleds through deep sand, up steep hills. It is a strange sight, unlike anything you might have seen.
The film doesn't explain, but reference material will unlock the mystery: you're looking at a "Banei race," unique to Hokkaido, the "Wild West" Northern frontier of Japan. The horses are crossbred from Percheron and Breton stock.
No need to be especially sensitive to animal abuse; at first, you're sure to be taken aback by what these horses are forced to go through. And yet, soon enough, you realize that the people working in the stables care for these animals with an uncanny passion. And then, among the horses and Arctic environment of Hokkaido, rises the spirit of the greatest Norwegian playwright.
The story of the people - not of the horses - is pure Ibsen: a family drama with complex, heavy secrets that slowly, intriguingly, surprisingly, and with great impact are revealed to the characters themselves at the same time as the viewer learns of them. It's all "Enemy of the People" and "Hedda Gabler"... in the stables. Sho Narumi's novel is realized on the screen without its literary/psychological values being compromised.
The human protagonist is Manabu (Yusuke Iseya, in a constant state of Hamlet-like indecision), the younger brother of the stable owner Takeo (the great Koichi Sato, of innumerable films and TV series). Manabu, escaped Hokkaido for Tokyo 13 years before, there to ride the waves of Japan's dot-com rise and precipitous fall. He is returning after the bubble burst, deep in debt, humiliated, and quite without hope.
Enter a horse and a girl, the old Unryu and a young jockey (Kazue Fukiishi - the daughter in "Memories of Tomorrow"), both with complicated histories and much on their minds. If this film came from Hollywood, you'd know which will figure more significantly in the story. Without giving anything away, it's safe to say that if there is a soft spot in your heart, old Unryu will find it; just don't confuse him with Bambi's mother.
But Ibsen asserts himself again, with scenes of searing insight into relationships and the human condition, as the prodigal son re-enters the family he once rejected. It is a strange and memorable film, starkly impressive and beautiful in turn, in Hiroshi Machida's outstanding cinematography.
The original title is "Yuki ni negau koto," meaning "What I ask the snow to grant me," conveying the movie's meaning better, but perhaps not fitting the marquee too well. This 2005 film is just making its first appearances in the U.S., beginning with San Francisco's Four Star Theater.
The tough, cold life in Hokkaido is matched by the lives of horses and
racing crews; the course is hilly, and it's said more than once that
the old horses no longer able to race meet a grim fate - as food. This
low-key drama covers an unusual topic seriously, with characters who
seem suited for the challenging life. There were a few times when I
felt a little more could have been done with such an unusual topic, but
there's no question that there's a feeling of verisimilitude in the
sounds and struggles of these horses. Long after seeing the film, you
may be haunted by the gray Hokkaido winter and the hyper-real sounds of
the racing life.
The plot is very simple. A salaryman visits the ranch of his brother; but it becomes increasingly clear that he's come to hide. He turns out to be a natural, but there's a nagging sense that he's being tugged by two forces. The tough responsibilities of the ranch are a wake-up call that there are many whose lives embody greater challenge and risk - on a daily basis.
That said, one wonder if the subject matter wouldn't have been better served by a documentary. Certainly, there's an abundance of fascinating material, and there are times when one might prefer to see this sub-world unfettered by plot devices or characters - the kind of thing those quiet BBC documentaries do so well.
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