It's a Japanese film about the Yuki-Onna, or "snow woman". I thought it was fantastic.
Yuki-Onna comes from Japanese mythology. She's a beautiful woman who walks in the snow and magically kills anyone she meets, leaving them frozen to ice. Some versions of her legend say she's naked, but that her skin's so white (or even transparent) that you can only see her face and hair. She also leaves no footprints and might possibly have no feet, which is quite common with Japanese ghosts. She was almost always evil until the 18th century, but these days she's capable of being more nuanced.
If you've seen Kwaidan, this will seem familiar. That's a far better known film, but I preferred this version.
Firstly, she looks breathtaking. I want to go berserk about Tanaka's use of colour, even though on reflection that colour is "white". Our first glimpse of her is as a smudge on the celluloid, which still looks striking even today. Shiho Fujimura is the actress and she's beautiful, as we'll discover later, but as the Yuki-Onna that beauty becomes creepy and alienating. They've given her bone-white make-up and scary eyes, making her look like a live-action Walt Disney drawing come to life... and there can hardly be many things weirder than that. Then we have her killings, for which she unleashes the elements upon her victims (even if you're indoors) and is something you won't be forgetting in a hurry. It's like going up against a goddess. In short, she freaked me out. Fujimura looking up with those golden eyes and that clown-white face is way more sinister than some werewolf or vampire.
The story begins with two craftsmen looking for a tree. They're going to carve a statue of Buddha for a temple. However the weather turns bad and they take refuge in a house, only to find the Yuki-Onna at the door. One man gets ice-cubed and the other (Jun Fujikawa) is about to go the same way, but then the Yuki-Onna decides she likes him. She'll spare his life, on one condition. He must never, ever mention the events of this night to anyone, even his wife or children. If he does, she'll return and kill him.
This of course strikes terror into the audience. You know he'll do it. It's impossible for this not to happen. It's one of the laws of fiction. You could have lived with this had Fujikawa been a dick... but he's not. He's a nice guy who's friendly and hospitable towards a woman who turns up at his door one day, called Yuki (eh?) played by Shiho Fujimura (hello?) who's cold to the touch (um) and has the whitest skin anyone's ever seen (okay, we get the message). Yup, the Yuki-Onna's become human. She still likes Fujikawa. They get married. They even have a child. They're both gentle and likeable, so as an audience member you've got a knife in your gut for pretty much the entire movie, waiting for Fujikawa to make his inevitable but stupid and pointless mistake. You'd have to be brain-dead to do it. You know he will. It hurts to be sitting there, waiting.
You won't be thinking Fujikawa's an idiot, though. The Yuki-Onna's a sanity-blasting monster, while Fujimura as a human seems normal and natural. If I were him, I wouldn't have guessed either.
What makes the film special, though, is the Yuki-Onna herself. She's the film's heart. She's not just pretending to be human. She really does love Fujikawa and she's trying so hard to live as a human and be a good wife and mother. There's an awesome old lady soothsayer who knows there's something wrong with her and throws boiling water at her. Understandably the Yuki-Onna wants to avoid this person, but she says nothing and stands by Fujikawa when he needs to go there to pray for inspiration with his work. There's a bailiff who's got the horn for the Yuki-Onna and so keeps being a bastard to Fujikawa in an attempt to steal and rape his wife. He makes our heroes' lives hell. He's a monumental cock. It shouldn't need saying that he's going to die, and die ugly. Eventually the Yuki-Onna's going to chew him up and spit him out... but she ties herself in knots trying to avoid this.
She's trying to be human, you see. Humans don't whip out superpowers to freeze-dry any mortals who happen to be bothering them. What's more, even when she does turn herself back into the monster, she's capable of doing so for a noble cause and then afterwards looking shattered. We don't know what rules govern the Yuki-Onna's existence, but they clearly exist and at least in some cases they're inconvenient.
There's a theme of exploitation of power. That despicable vile rapist smug son-of-a-bitch bailiff is persecuting Fujikawa and Fujimura because he can. He's higher-status than them, so why not? Anything a commoner might have, he thinks he has the right to take. ("How evil is he?" I hear you ask. Well, he beats an old lady to death because she tried to stop him beating children.) Meanwhile Fujikawa is a lowly sculptor who's won a high-status commission to carve that Buddha, so the bailiff wheels in a nationally renowned sculptor as a rival. Naturally, it's assumed that this bumpkin can't possibly compete with someone famous.
However at the same time, we have a supernatural being who's trying so hard that it hurts to live like a mortal. This has a parallel in the priest's judgement on the statues. Just making a pretty carving is one thing, but does it evoke compassion? "It would be impossible to pray to such a goddess."
To compare with Kwaidan seems almost unfair. The Kwaidan episode is a skin-and-bones adaptation, covering what's in the folk tale and no more. It's self-consciously arty, especially those painted skies, and in fairness it's pretty good, but it's not even aiming for this film's richness and emotional palette.
I loved this one. I think it deserves far more attention. It's a straightforward story, but it's the humanity of Fujimura's Yuki-Onna that caught me off-guard and blindsided me. Admittedly there's that Sword of Damocles that's hanging over our heads throughout, but even that doesn't work out quite as expected. Loved the characters. Loved the story. Loved how Tokuzo Tanaka realises his Yuki-Onna on-screen. I'm now annoyed that I can't find it on non-Japanese DVD...