There were two screenings on Day 2 of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF), the second of which was Snow Paths (설행_눈길을 걷다). The film deals with alcoholism, addiction, loss/death, family, and to a lesser extent but subtly woven throughout, religion. All of whic are deep and sometimes dark topics that lead one to believe we’re in for an intense film that will make us think. Which was one of the reasons I was looking forward to it.
Jung Woo visits a sanitarium run by nuns deep in the mountains to rehab from his addiction to alcohol. His addiction is apparent from the start and it’s obvious from both his conversation with his mother and his shaking hands that he’s had trouble for a while. Overcoming his addiction won’t be easy, especially as he was still chugging soju on the walk from the bus station to the sanitarium.
One of the young nuns befriends him with small kindnesses and their budding friendship helps strengthen his resolve. But then another man comes to the sanatorium and Jung Woo is tempted again. Will he be able to master his addiction?
Snow Paths surprised me. For a variety of reasons I was expecting there to be more religion in the film and for it to be more overtly dark, not in the least because it was set in a sanitarium run by nuns. And many of the secondary characters are nuns. Don’t get me wrong, the religious references are there but it was more subtle.
In fact, there was a lot of subtlety and slow build of the story until the end of the film when the various storylines come together and probably in ways you won’t expect. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning…
Jung Woo, played by Kim Tae-Hoon (김태훈) heads to a sanitarium run by nuns to try to get his alcohol addiction under control. While the nuns don’t normally accept ‘guests’ during the winter, they make an exception for him because of his mother’s past connection with the head nun. The retreat – sorry, I dislike using the word sanitarium in this case as it’s more often used for a medical facility that helped those with tuberculosis 100 years ago – is deep in the mountains and very isolated. However, it’s a peaceful place.
It became quickly obvious that Jung Woo isn’t quite ready for recovery as he’s constantly searching for alcohol – soju appears to be his drink of choice – and guzzles it like water when he does find it. Things appear bleak and rather like one might expect from a film about battling addiction until he meets Sister Maria, played by Park So Dam (박소담), whose light injects a little hope into his recovery.
It’s the character of Sister Maria that truly saves the story – and Jung Woo – from becoming too bleak and dark. She is just so filled with light and innocence that she infuses the film with hope, not just Jung Woo, although it’s easy to see her influence on him.
But just when one thinks they know what’s going to happen, Director Kim Hee-Jeong (김희정) throws in a twist or two to keep you guessing. After the introduction of Sister Maria, I thought that Jung Woo might be ‘saved’ from his addiction because of her love – pure or otherwise – but no, the film didn’t venture down that predictable path. She gives him hope and strength from her innate kindness and innocent gestures towards him but I think she also makes him feel human again to a degree which helps lift him from his despair as it becomes increasing obvious that his battle with addiction isn’t the only thing weighing on him.
Simple gestures like asking him for help driving her somewhere, draw him out of his inner turmoil and give him something different to focus on. Now that scene was interesting for a variety of reasons but Sister Maria was able to reach Jung Woo and help him by making him feel useful by helping her. Her light seemed to be the only thing that could break through his anguish and addiction, if only temporarily.
It was scenes like that one, where something unexpected unfolds that elevates Snow Paths above what one expects. But that’s the beauty of the film, it keeps you guessing and doesn’t always go the way you think it might. Director Kim also allows the audience to figure out the film at their own pace and never over-explains or hits you over the head with foreshadowing – it’s there but it’s subtle, so subtle that in a lot of cases, you won’t even notice until the end. I will admit, I was left with a few questions at the end – like what was with the dreams of levitation – but I love that the director let the audience work the story out for ourselves. She left lots of clues but it was delicately done.
In addition to the subtleties of the story, Kim Tae Hoon and Park So Dam’s acting was on point. Both leads were so strong and fleshed out their characters in a manner that allowed the audience to connect with them. You may not have liked Jung Woo but you definitely sympathized with his plight and spent the film trying to understand what lead him to this low moment. There were times that you could almost taste Jung Woo’s despair and Sister Maria was so wonderfully naïve that it was a fun shock to see her spew obscenities so confidentially (one of the twists you’ll just need to watch the film to understand).
Beyond the subtleties of the storytelling and the great yet understated acting, the other element that really stood out for me was the use of sound and slow motion to add elements to the film. Of course, the cinematography and the often stark winter setting also added to the film and helped build the emotional impact but, it was the use of sound (and to a lesser extent, slow motion) that helped build the sensitive undercurrents in the film.
The one thing I didn’t talk about was the dream sequences that occur – some of which it’s hard to tell if they are dreams, delusions from alcohol withdrawal, or reality. The audience is caught in Jung Woo’s world – and mind – and as he gets increasingly confused and the withdrawal symptoms worsen, it’s often not clear what is real. This all ties into the restrained storytelling and near the end, an important fact behind Jung Woo’s fragile state becomes clear which helps the audience piece it all together. Or at least most of it.
Snow Paths is a wonderfully subtle film that will keep you engaged trying to understand what drives Jung Woo and why he doesn’t think he deserves help. The acting blends well with the storytelling to draw the audience into the story and allow them to make up their own minds about many things. Well worth watching, it’s a delicate – and perhaps different from expected – look at addiction, loss, family and religion.
Disclosure: While not involved in any way in selection of films or programming, I am the chair of the board of directors for the Toronto Korean Film Festival. However, the opinions expressed are mine and not that of the festival.