Perhaps every great ghost story is a kind of palimpsest in which the world of the dead overlays the world of the living. So it is only fitting that the tales themselves get told and retold, with each new retelling remaking the myth as entirely but ephemerally as does a fall of snow transform a landscape. Certainly, Japanese actress-director Kiki Sugino’s third feature, “Snow Woman,” does just that: The ancient folk story on which it is based was presumably passed down through the oral tradition for centuries before folklorist Lafcadio Hearn wrote it into his 1904 anthology “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.” That book, including the “Woman of the Snow” story, has already inspired one bewitchingly beautiful film in Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 “Kwaidan,” and now with Sugino’s delicately modernized take, it inspires another.
Slow, enigmatic, and full of ellipses and strange hesitations, Sugino’s film is not for the impatient, nor for those who like their horror stories reared on red meat. Individual scenes move with a kind of underwater grace, which could become tiresomely wan were the adaptation even a touch more literal. But “Snow Woman” no doubt benefitted from the comprehensive rewriting that Sugino did when she fell ill just as production was slated to begin the first time (and it does have a certain fever-dream feel to it). So its power now resides in how those individually slow scenes are threaded together. Often, a character will ask a question and the scene cuts before the reply; at other times, a dream sequence will occur with nothing to signal that it’s a dream except for its displacement in relation to the scenes around it; and more often still, Sugino will string moments together that are separated by long, indeterminate swathes of time, and so we are momentarily disoriented, with our expectation of some sort of causal continuity across cuts constantly disappointed. But once you settle into this rhythm, the scramble to assemble the film’s chronology becomes part of the pleasure, and Sugino’s careful, scene-by-scene meting out of minimal narrative information becomes part of its artistry: a breadcrumb trail leading deep into a dark forest.
Deliberately stylized in its approach to period, the film opens with a black-and-white vignette that could be set in medieval times: a hunter, Minokichi (Munetaka Aoki) and his aging mentor Mosaku get caught in a snowstorm and when Mosaku is too exhausted to carry on, they seek shelter in a ramshackle hut in the woods. While they sleep a ghostly snow woman — a yuki-onna — steals into the hut and gently breathes her frostbite-inducing breath on Mosaku’s face, killing him. Minokichi wakes and witnesses this, but the yuki-onna (played by director Sugino) spares him, on condition he never tells anyone what he has seen.
Not long after, Minokichi meets the mysterious Yuki (also Sugino), who bears a striking resemblance to the snow woman, though he keeps that to himself. They eventually marry and have a daughter, Ume (Mayu Yamaguchi) — but that is only half the story as this isn’t medieval times at all, and down in the town is the factory where Minokichi reluctantly goes to work to support his new family. It is owned by the dead Mosaku’s brother (Shiro Sano), whose son Ogata (Takeshi Yamamoto) has a life in parallel to that of the strange family in the forest. He was married on the same day as Minokichi and Yuki, and became a father on the same day that Ume was born. His son Mikio and Ume grow up to be friends — but across a divide, between the ancient mountain-and-forest world of nature, spirits and superstition, and the modern world of business, gossiping co-workers and progress. Those worlds collide weirdly: A colleague of Minokichi’s is found dead in the woods with inexplicable frostbite marks on his body, while the factory starts to manufacture odd, hexagonal lamps that “detect human presence” but in the few quick shots we see of them flicker on and off when no one’s there — at least, no one visible.
Sugino’s first two films, “Yokudo” (AKA “Taksu”) and “Kyoto Elegy” (the latter of which also premiered at the Tokyo Film Festival), saw her cursed with the description “promising.” But with “Snow Woman,” she moves toward fulfilling the potential those films demonstrated. And it also marks a leap forward in terms of craft: Shogo Ueno’s camerawork is superb, moving between Kurosawa-inflected registers and crisply surreal modern frames, such as the beautiful wide shot of Ume and her schoolmates practicing some sort of aikido 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 Sow Jow, is similarly varied and precise, ranging from the classically Japanese and ghostly — pure choirs and sonorous soft gongs — to the more electric and even electronic.
This attention to the micro level of the film means that even those moments that don’t connect still yield something of value — an image, a sound cue, a glimpse of the prehistoric architecture of this story. And that poetic power is crucial because not all of it does cohere in a wholly convincing manner; sometimes the story’s elisions swallow up too much necessary information and even the attentive viewer is left floundering. But for the most part, Sugino should be celebrated for her bravery (here not used in the euphemistic sense, though there is one surprisingly explicit and quite erotic sex scene). It takes courage to be this suggestive, to evoke rather than to state and, in the context of a ghost story, to haunt rather than to scare, but in her most accomplished film yet, Sugino finds the icy heart of an ancient, oft-repeated story, and makes it her enigmatic own.