Review: 'What the Snow Brings' an unpredictable drama

No dancing penguins here, no master-chef rat — only real animals and real people.

As Kichitaro Negishi’s “What the Snow Brings” begins, the starting gates of a racecourse fly open, but no sleek horses fly through them. Instead, enormous draft-horses, weighing a ton, stumble on, dragging half-ton iron sleds through deep sand, up steep hills. It is a strange sight, unlike anything you might have seen.

The film doesn’t explain, but reference material will unlock the mystery: You’re looking at a Banei race — unique to Hokkaido, the wild-west frontier of northern Japan. The horses are crossbred from Percheron and Breton stock.

No need to be especially sensitive to animal abuse; at first, you’re sure to be taken aback by what these horses are forced to go through. And yet, soon enough, you realize that the people working in the stables care for these animals with an uncanny passion. And then, among the horses and Arctic environment of Hokkaido, rises the spirit of the greatest Norwegian playwright.

The story of the people — not of the horses — is pure Ibsen: a family drama with complex, heavy secrets that slowly, intriguingly, surprisingly, and with great impact are revealed to the characters themselves at the same time the viewer learns of them. It’s all “Enemy of the People” and “Hedda Gabler” … in the stables. Sho Narumi’s novel is realized on the screen without its literary/psychological values being compromised.

The human protagonist is Manabu (Yusuke Iseya, in a constant state of Hamlet-like indecision), the younger brother of the stable owner Takeo (the great Koichi Sato, of innumerable films and TV series). Manabu escaped Hokkaido for Tokyo 13 years before, there to ride the waves of Japan’s dot-com rise and precipitous fall. He is returning after the bubble burst, deep in debt, humiliated, and quite without hope.

Enter a horse, the old Unryu, and a girl, a young jockey (Kazue Fukiishi, the daughter in “Memories of Tomorrow”), both with complicated histories. If this film came from Hollywood, you’d know which will figure more significantly in the story.

Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that if there is a soft spot in your heart, old Unryu will find it; just don’t confuse him with Bambi’s mother.

But Ibsen asserts himself again, with scenes of searing insight into relationships and the human condition, as the prodigal son re-enters the family he once rejected. It is a strange and memorable film, stark and beautiful in turn, in Hiroshi Machida’s outstanding cinematography.

The original title is “Yuki ni negau koto,” meaning “What I ask the snow to grant me,” conveying the movie’s meaning better, but perhaps not fitting a marquee as well. This 2005 film is just making its first appearances in the U.S., beginning with San Francisco’s Four Star Theater.

What the Snow Brings ***½

Starring Yusuke Iseya, Koichi Sato, Kazue Fukiishi

Written by Masato Kato, based on a book by Sho Narumi

Directed by Kichitaro Negishi

Not rated

Running time 1 hour, 52 minutes

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