Snow Paths (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): A confused alcoholic at Catholic sanatorium

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South Korean film “Snow Paths” is seemingly simple at first. A man struggling with his personal problems comes to a quiet place, and then he meets someone who brings some bright change into his troubled state. While this is a familiar premise, the movie is an engaging character drama mixed with religious elements, and it becomes more curious when it moves into unexpected areas during its second half.

When we meet Jeong-woo (Kim Tae-hoon) during the opening scene, this young man is going to a Catholic sanatorium located in some remote rural mountain area. He is an alcoholic in the serious need of help, and his body already shows those alarming symptoms of alcoholism including trembling hands. Even when he is walking alone to the sanatorium, he drinks a bottle of soju (it is Korean distilled beverage, by the way), and then he hides another bottle in a toilet not long after he arrives at the sanatorium.

Anyway, he is gently welcomed by the director nun of the sanatorium during his first day. Although he has not been very religious compared to his mother, the director nun, played by Jeon Gook-hyang, is willing to help her old friend’s son, and Jeong-woo soon finds himself deprived of any chance of drinking. When he is checked by one of the nuns in the sanatorium, it looks like she handled many problematic alcoholics like Jeong-woo before, and there is no way to get a drink unless he drives to a village far from his current staying place.

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Constantly struggling with his craving for alcohol, Jeong-woo gets acquainted with Sister Maria (Park So-Dam). He is drawn to her as spending more time with her, and she seems to like him too, but neither of them are willing to get closer to each other regardless of whatever is being felt between them. There is something elusive about her, and the director nun, who took this shy young woman under her wing several years ago, sincerely advises Jeong-woo not to get too close to her.

Meanwhile, Jeong-woo begins to experience odd dreams and occasional blackouts as his mind becomes more unstable due to withdrawal symptoms. While his mind often teeters on the thin line between reality and delusion, he gets more confounded day by day, and we naturally come to wonder about the reliability of his increasingly agitated viewpoint.

His anxiously abstemious circumstance becomes more interesting when a beefy hunter guy comes to the sanatorium and stays with Jeong-woo in the same room. He somehow sees through Jeong-woo right from the beginning, and Choi Moo-seong, who was memorable as a ghastly supporting character in “I Saw the Devil” (2010), effortlessly switches back and forth between jovial and unnerving modes. Like Sister Maria, the hunter seems to touch something inside Jeong-woo, and the uneasiness between them eventually leads to a tense sequence unfolded during one snowy day.

The director/writer Kim Hee-jung, who previous directed “The Wonder Years” (2007) and “Grape Candy” (2011), keeps her movie grounded in calm realistic mood. As her story is slowly developed, the tranquil sense of isolation surrounding her characters is further accentuated by the cold, barren wintry atmosphere on the screen, and Kim also makes a good use of plain rural locations for establishing a quiet solitary environment with considerable realism.

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As the movie subtly conveys to us the emotional undercurrents revolving around them, Jeong-woo and Sister Maria come to us as two damaged souls who sense emotional scars from each other. There is a crucial scene where Jeong-woo learns a little more about Sister Maria’s previous life through an impromptu night visit for someone who was once close to her, and Park So-Dam, who had an impressive breakthrough year in 2015 thanks to a series of solid supporting turns in several films including “The Priests” (2015), “The Throne” (2015), and “The Silenced” (2015), is terrific during an uncanny ambiguous moment which is left to our judgement while suggesting a lot about what her character has possibly kept to herself for years.

Kim Tae-hoon, who previously appeared as one of the supporting characters in “Gyeongju” (2014), gives a nice understated performance which gradually expresses his character’s guilt and torment. As the movie later reveals an important fact behind Jeong-woo’s despairing emotional state, we accordingly look back on what we have seen through his viewpoint, and then we come to see that the movie is ultimately about his torturous inner struggles followed by the difficult first step toward possible healing process. He hit the bottom indeed, but maybe he can climb up from there now thanks to the kindness of a stranger who cares about him.

In the end, “Snow Paths” leaves us with several unexplained or unresolved things to ponder on. Is Sister Maria really ‘special’ as the director nun says, or is she merely a troubled girl who found her solace in religion? And, above all, what exactly happens during the climax sequence? To be frank with you, I do not have any definite answer for these questions and other ones, but I enjoyed the movie for its mood and performances, and I appreciate how it lets us assess and interpret its story and characters for ourselves.

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