The historical subject of South Korean film “Snowy Road” is one of many sad tragedies of the World War II. During that time, numerous Korean women were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese Army, and many of them could not return to their country alive while the rest of them had to hide their painful past due to shame and fear. As told to us at the end of the movie, there are only 40 recognized survivors remaining in South Korea at present, but they have not received any proper apology or compensation yet from the Japanese government.
Although it is fictional, the movie reflects this harrowing historical fact well through thoughtful good storytelling and characterization. It has story and characters we can care about, and that makes us think more about not only the past but also the present. Never overlooking the dark, horrific aspects of its story, the movie wisely avoids being exploitative or sensational, and it eventually comes to us as a respectful tribute to the memory of those ill-fated women.
The main story of the movie is set in 1944, when Korea was going through the Japanese Occupation period. Jong-boon (Kim Hyang-ki) is a young girl living in some rural village, and we get to know a bit about her as she goes through another day in her village. She wants to attend a local school like her little brother, but their poor family cannot afford that, and her mother, who has to take care of their household alone in her husband’s absence, believes that her daughter does not need to be educated.
We also meet Yeong-ae (Kim Sae-ron), the daughter of a rich family in the village. Yeong-ae wants to be a school teacher, and it looks like she will be able to realize her dream within several years considering her solid status at the school. As watching Yeong-ae, Jong-boon cannot help but envy her, and she also finds herself attracted to Yeong-ae’s handsome older brother despite the apparent class difference between them.
Jong-boon and Yeong-ae’s story is frequently intercut with the other story, which is unfolded in the present. For some reason, old Jong-boon, played by Kim Yeong-ok in this part, has used her friend’s name for 70 years, and she is still haunted by her friend’s ghost, especially after she is informed that Yeong-ae’s father has been recently recognized for his merit in the Independence Movement. Understandably, that means nothing to old Jong-boon at all, but she cannot help but think of her friend – and what happened in their old past.
We see how Yeong-ae and Jong-boon were thrown together into a gloomy circumstance. Not long after she is approached by a suspicious guy, Jong-boon is kidnapped by him and other guys while her brother is helplessly watching all of this, and she is soon being taken to somewhere along with other unfortunate girls. After her father and brother are arrested, Yeong-ae tries hard to distance herself from this incident, and it looks like she is going to Japan along with other students, but then she ends up being locked up inside a train along with Jong-boon and others girls.
The girls are sent to a Japanese military post located in some remote place of Manchu, and each of them is promptly locked in a cell as a ‘comfort woman’, a Japanese euphemism for prostitute. The movie only shows us a bunch of Japanese soldiers waiting outside the cells during one scene, but we are chilled by the atrocity implied in this restrained moment nonetheless, and that reminds me of how exploitative and reprehensible “Spirits’ Homecoming” (2015) is in comparison, another recent South Korean film dealing with the same historical subject.
Under this horrible situation, Jong-boon and Yeong-ae come to stick together more than they expected. Things do not get better for them at all, but these two different girls find some solace from each other, and there are several poignant moments as the movie observes the gradual development of their relationship. While Kim Hyang-ki, who previously appeared in “A Werewolf Boy” (2012), is engaging in her strong performance, Kim Sae-ron, who has steadily advanced since her breakthrough performance in “A Brand New Life” (2009), is equally fine as her co-performer, and it goes without saying that their duo performance is the emotional center of the film.
As another active part of the movie, Kim Yeong-ok embodies well her character’s long history, and Cho Soo-hyang also gives a small but fine supporting performance as Eun-soo, a problematic adolescent girl who lives alone next to old Jong-boon’s small residence. When Eun-soo really needs help on one day, old Jong-boon does not hesitate to help her even though she does not know her much, and that leads to an unlikely friendship between them, which eventually prompts old Jong-boon to take a decisive step for making a real peace with her past.
Directed by Lee Na-jeong, “Snowy Road” was actually a two-part TV movie broadcast in South Korea in 2015, and what I watched is the theatrical version re-edited from the original TV version. Because I have not watched the latter, I cannot tell you how these two versions are different from each other, but I am mostly satisfied with the former, and this will be a good start for you if you are interested in its historical subject which should be more widely known and discussed.