"As of 1 March 2015, there are only 53 victims of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery still alive out of a total of 238.
We will never forget those who suffered and left the world without ever receiving an apology from Japan..."


Jong-boon (Kim Hyang-gi) and Young-ae (Kim Sae-ron) are young girls living in a rural village in colonial Korea, under Japanese rule. While Young-ae comes from a fairly well-to-do family allowing her to have decent clothes, attend school and never struggle for food, Jong-boon’s impoverished upbringing gives her no such trappings or luxuries and though she would truly love to be part of Young-ae’s world their difference in circumstances means that is unlikely to ever be.
However, regardless of class, wealth, or indeed lack thereof, when both girls are abducted and unceremoniously dumped onto a train to who knows where with numerous others, Jong-boon and Young-ae soon come to realise that only by relying on each other can they hope to survive whatever terrible fate awaits them at the end of their journey.
That fate – for these innocent girls who are little more than children – is to be forced into slavery as ‘comfort women’ serving the often brutal, sometimes depraved sexual needs of the Japanese military, in peril of their very lives...


Snowy Road opens with a stark yet visually arresting winter scene showing Jung-boon running through a landscape deep with snow, desperately and repeatedly calling out to Young-ae who, clearly battered and bruised, walks labouredly and painfully – almost to the point of staggering – across a frozen area of water which soon begins to crack...
This opening is in actuality a truncated version of a scene that appears in full at a much later stage in proceedings – its full context and ultimate narrative meaning deliberately hidden through its truncation and displacement. While numerous Korean films of late (and indeed over the years, to an extent) have used this idea of a shortened latter scene appearing early, there is a reason for its repeated and increasing popularity as a device. That is, it more often than not works like a charm in drawing viewers into the story, both driving interest through mystery on first view and allowing a feeling of knowledge in hindsight in its later, full context appearance. Such is most definitely the case in Snowy Road to the extent that this visually stunning segment easily becomes one of the film's most instantly memorable scenes, even before we realise how ultimately poignant it truly is.

Snowy Road’s narrative is split into past and present – the former (obviously) detailing the terrible ordeal faced by Jong-boon and Young-ae as young girls at the hands of the Japanese, while the latter tells the present day story of the trials and tribulations of one of the girls as an elderly woman. However, while the ‘comfort women’ story is of course at the very core of the entire narrative, both past and present, each timeline also adds social commentary relevant to it, broadening the narrative's scope at the same time as adding further context to proceedings:
In the early stages of the historical timeline (as already briefly mentioned) we are shown the vast differences in lives of – and indeed the opportunities available to (or not) – rich vs. poor, higher vs. lower class: Young-ae coming from a well-to-do family is allowed to attend school, get an education and even consider a future career (she, for a time at least, believes that she will be travelling to Japan to study to become a teacher). Conversely, Jong-boon as a poor child is simply expected to help her mother in her daily work, put “silly” ideas of attending school, getting an education and even learning to read and write out of her head and concentrate on finding a husband as soon as possible. In fact, the vast chasm between the social standing of the two is underlined yet further by Young-ae’s repeated blunt statement that Jong-boon will never be allowed to marry Young-ae's brother with whom Jong-boon is clearly enamoured – a statement that will resonate throughout the film and indeed take on a far greater importance in the narrative’s latter stages. Indeed, there is even reference to the (wholly unfair) social stigma associated with what these women have been forced to undertake, through no fault of their own, and the adverse effect it would have on their lives and position in society should they ever manage to escape and return to Korea, with Young-ae resolutely stating that she will without hesitation lie about where's she's been and what she's had to do.

That very stigma still looms large in the mind of the present day elderly character. The social commentary in this timeline relates not only to this and by extension to the character’s choices in her interactions with others (namely, authority figures) but also shows in her efforts to help a troubled young woman who has largely been pushed to the edge of society and whose life (or, more accurately, existence) largely cascades from one disaster to another. Not only that, but the young tearaway's thoughts and opinions on finding out what happened to Jong-boon and Young-ae speak as much of changes that have taken place in Korean society over the years as any other reference. As if that wasn't enough, the decision to have Young-ae (as a young girl) repeatedly appear to and converse with the old lady in the present day not only draws a perfect, definitive line between past and present but also says a great deal about how the ongoing, never ending psychological scars from her past trauma continue to affect and influence her every current moment.

Snowy Road began its life (if you will) as a two part television mini-series broadcast in 2015 and subsequently spliced together into this full length feature release. As such, there are times when visuals look somewhat more televisual than cinematic, though it does have to be said that the reverse is also the case on more than one occasion. However, none of these changes/switches in the visual aspects detract from the narrative in any respect (neither past or present timeline) and it could even be said that they are more often than not more obvious only to those who are aware of the film's televisual beginnings. And, yes, I am aware of almost creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by even writing this section of the review but I ultimately make no apology because there is more to be said about the positive aspects brought to the piece overall by its humble starting point:

Snowy Road is a hugely emotional tale that is guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes on numerous occasions and the fact that television dramas have melodrama almost inherent to them strengthens that aspect all the more, to the extent that I personally found myself deeply moved at points in the narrative I really didn't expect, and indeed some scenes made smaller perhaps by necessity than a larger budget cinematic work would require came across as far more intimate and personal than might otherwise have been the case. Television dramas also have more restrictions than purely cinematic works on what violence and sexual content can be shown, but director Lee Na-jeong manages to repeatedly turn these into strengths rather than weaknesses. Case in point: We never see what goes on in the barren rooms where the ‘comfort women’ are forced to service Japanese soldiers, the sexual brutality inflicted on them only showing in the bruises and wounds the girls bear in the aftermath. Let's face it, no visuals could (or should) adequately show the horrific treatment of these innocent girls and frankly Lee Na-jeong’s depiction, instead, of the numerous wooden ‘tickets' hung time and time and time again on the wall (each being a pass for a soldier to be sexually served by a girl) speaks volumes about these repeated and endless atrocities easily as effectively as any visual brutality could, and in not showing such scenes respect is, I feel, also rightly afforded to these wronged women and their heartbreaking stories.

There have of course been a fair few films over the years focused on the subject of 'comfort women', with some such as Spirits' Homecoming having a narrative bearing more than a passing resemblance to that of Snowy Road (a story of two young women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese; a narrative split between past and present; one of the women shown in the present day as an elderly lady with the whereabouts of the other of the comfort women characters at least initially unclear). However, in almost all instances regardless of similarities each such example has enough originality in its ultimate focus to be as worthy as any other and with the subject of 'comfort women' being so important - and indeed with the vital need for continued awareness of the historical atrocities committed by the Japanese against young, innocent Korean women to be repeatedly raised - as far as I'm concerned too much is never enough.

As a final point, the calibre of acting in Snowy Road is exemplary across the board, whether you consider Kim Sae-ron’s performance as Young-ae; Kim Hyang-gi's as Jong-boon (two young, incredibly talented actresses whose careers are massively on the rise); or indeed look at Jang Young-nam in the role of Jong-boon’s mother (a well respected actress for many years); or any of the other supporting cast parts. That statement being, frankly, an undeniable fact hopefully means that when I say that, for me, Kim Hyang-gi's performance stood out as the most perfectly nuanced and utterly natural you'll understand just how phenomenal she is in the role of young girl Jong-boon.



Originally a two-part television production, subsequently spliced together into a full length feature release, Snowy Road is a hugely emotional and indeed important story which uses social commentary to deftly create layer upon layer within an already in-depth and gripping narrative.


SNOWY ROAD (눈길 / 2017)
Director: Lee Na-jeong
Starring: Kim Sae-ron and Kim Hyang-gi


All images © CGV Arthouse
Review © Paul Quinn