Dir: Kichitaro Negishi. Jap. 2005. 112mins.

What The Snow Brings pulled offa Superfecta at the Tokyo International Film Festival,winning the top prize - the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix - on top of the best directorprize for Kichitaro Negishi,the best actor prize for star Koichi Sato and the audience award.

As its haul indicates, Negishi's drama of brotherly strife, which unfolds against thecolourful backdrop of the "banei" style of horseracing found only on the island of Hokkaido, was a critical and crowd favourite.Though set in modern-day Japan, its story of recovery from humiliation and defeat,photographed with sombre beauty and told with simplicity and force, recalls Yoji Yamada's The TwilightSamurai, which was nominated for a 2003 best foreign language Oscar and screenedwidely around the world.

The obvious Hollywood comparisonis Seabiscuit,although Negishi's story has less glitz, if a similarlygritty, backstage (or rather back stable) drama. It also builds to a do-or-die race,though Negishi keeps the focus more squarely on the humancharacters, less on his equine hero.

Targeted at a mainstream adultaudience in Japan, What The Snow Brings will need smart promotion to find its nicheabroad since it lacks the obvious hooks (name director, samurai, spooks, etc) thathave helped Japanese films succeed internationally. But its very lack of obviousnessmight be an advantage, though, as was evident at Tokyo, where it came out of nowhereto become the first Japanese film to win the top prize since the inaugural event 20 years ago.

One of the film's aforementionedbrothers is Manabu Yazaki (Yusuke Iseya)who, as the story begins, has lost his business and his wife in Tokyo - and is nowreturning home to Obihiro, on Japan's northernmost majorisland, in the dead of winter.

There, on the advice of an elderlypunter (Tsutomu Yamazaki), he bets all his remaining cash on a banei horse race, in which enormous draft horses pull driverson weighted sleighs around a 200-metre track, climbing two large humps on the way.Manabu's horse, Unryu, stops dead on the middle of thesecond hump - and the punter tells him the horse will soon be sashimi.

Unryu, it turns out, is being trained by Manabu's irascibleolder brother Takeo (Sato), who runs a stable, but isfar from rich. He bristles at Manubu's arrival - his youngersibling had all but disowned his socially declasse familyin his climb to the top in Tokyo but takes him in. When he discovers Manabu's direfinancial straits, he offers him a job at the stable.

His other optionsexhausted, Manabu accepts, but finds the work tough and his brother's temperviolent. One refuge is Haruko, an ever-cheerful womanwho cares for the stable workers and serves as Takeo'ssurrogate wife, if not yet his lover. Another is Unryu,with whom Manabu has an instinctive sympathy as a fellow loser. Still another isMakie, Unryu's jockey, who isconstantly being compared to her famous jockey father, but who has lost the touchthat once made her seem his worthy successor.

The plot trajectory from thispoint seems clear: Manabu will fall in love with Makieand reconcile with Takeo, while Unryumiraculously escapes the knackers yard. But life at the track is not so simple,especially when Manabu's former business partner shows up to remind him of the responsibilitieshe has abandoned and the pain he has caused.

Yusuke Iseyais the ostensible lead and convincingly balances the sympathetic and contemptiblesides of Manabu's character. But Koichi Sato is the stand-out as the passionate,fiery, essentially lonely Takeo, who is wedded to hiswork and rooted in the harsh Hokkaido landscape, but finds human connections problematic.It is his performance that gives the film most of its tension and power.

Much of What The Snow Brings' beauty comes from thehorses, which are twice the size of average thoroughbreds. Pulling their sleighson morning practice runs, the steam billowing out of their nostrils in huge clouds,they look like remnants from a prehistoric age of giants. Their style of racingis an odd cross between a steeplechase and a tractor pull, though their tremendousexertions, as well as the strategy needed to win, become fascinating and compellingduring the course of the film.

Perhaps the true market for What the Snow Brings is not the usual arthouse crowd, but race track punters who may not see manyAsian films, but will be twisting their popcorn boxes when Unryurounds that final turn.

Production company
Be WILD Co Ltd

Japan distribution
Bitters End

International sales
Style Jem, (81) 3 546 561 72

Executive producers
Masaaki Wakasugi
Naoki Kai

Masako Tanabe

Masato Kato

Hiroshi Machida

Production design
Fumio Ogawa

Akimasa Kawashima

Goro Ito

Main cast
Yusuke Iseya
Koichi Sato
Kyoko Koizumi
Kazue Fukiishi
Mitsuko Kusabue
Tsutomu Yamazaki