Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writer: Kelly Masterson, Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Ko Ah-Sung
Running Time: 126 min.
By Kyle Warner
In 2013, three of South Korea’s top directors stepped onto a bigger stage with their English-language feature film debuts. Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil) went the big studio route with the Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback actioner The Last Stand. Enjoyable but immediately forgettable, the film barely showed any of the style or verve we’ve come to expect from Kim’s films. Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) went the independent route with the dark drama Stoker. It’s far from one of Park’s best films, but every scene and every frame is unmistakably Chan-wook Park. My favorite of the three, Joon-ho Bong (The Host), didn’t go far from home, as his film Snowpiercer was produced by CJ Entertainment, allowing him more flexibility to make his movie his way outside of the Hollywood system… It was only when the film was ready to make its US debut that it ran into problems.
The Weinstein Company bought the US rights back before the film was finished. When Bong showed them the final product, TWC was suddenly hesitant. It’s a dark, violent, satirical film and it possesses a strangeness to it that apparently TWC felt was difficult to sell. Widely published and almost as widely disputed reports suggested that TWC was afraid the film wouldn’t be understood by the people of Idaho and Oklahoma. They wanted to trim approximately 20 minutes from the runtime in order to make a film that was easier for general audiences to digest. Bong fought for his movie, which was making big bucks overseas, and soon the 2013 US release date was made impossible. They settled on a compromise: the film would go to US theaters intact in 2014 but it would not receive the wide release they’d originally envisioned.
And though it’s a shame that Snowpiercer did not go wide and make a bigger impact on US box offices, I believe this tradeoff was worth it so that we could get the movie as Bong intended.
And what a movie.
Snowpiercer is adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. It tells the story of a world frozen by man’s attempts to combat global warming. The last of the human race survive by riding the ‘rattling ark’, a train in constant motion with an engine that can never die.
The train is split into two sections: the elite who live in luxury at the front, and the dirty, desperate ‘little people’ who ride in the tail. The two sides are in constant conflict. The people at the tail want more food and more room, but the people at the front rule over the train with an iron fist, physically maiming those who do not get in line. But the people at the back have had enough. A revolution is ignited under the watchful eye of the elder Gilliam (John Hurt) and his commander Curtis (Chris Evans). They break out of their section and begin their long, bloody march to the front in an attempt to make things better for their people.
Equipped with a bullhorn and an army of thugs, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) is tasked with putting an end to the rebellion. Tilda Swinton owns this movie. Her performance is so wonderfully batty that she steals the movie out from under the star Chris Evans. There are so many ideas to her performance, many of which could not have been found on the script’s pages. Swinton becomes one of the best, weirdest things you’ll likely see in all of 2014’s new films.
Snowpiercer is a weird little movie. The setting is oppressive. It’s filmed with dark, moody lighting and the sets are claustrophobic. However, instead of being yet another dank, dreary film about the apocalypse, Snowpiercer is wildly inventive and wickedly funny. If you’ve seen any of Bong’s previous films you know that he is adept at mixing comedy into some incredibly dark situations. His serial killer thriller Memories of Murder reminded me of the Coen Bros. with the way he effortlessly mixed drama and humor, and his monster movie The Host slipped in plenty of laughs amidst the horror and action.
Snowpiercer shows Bong at his most imaginative. The tail section of the train is a slum, but it’s a slum full of character and wonder, looking a bit like how Terry Gilliam might envision Neverland (I would be willing to bet that John Hurt’s character Gilliam is named after the director). The fight sequences are violent, pitting the front against the back in brawls with axes and knives, but they’re so full of black humor and weird visuals (most notably Tilda Swinton standing on a stool with binoculars, smiling while she watches the bloodshed) that the fights manage to feel fresh and – dare I say it – fun.
When you set a film in a dystopian future you’re able to say something about the present without getting preachy. Snowpiercer’s tale about the elite with their boots on the necks of the poor could’ve easily gone wrong. The message is obvious, its parallels are clear. But Bong doesn’t hammer it down. He lets the viewers figure it out. He trusts the audience – an increasingly rare thing in modern film. If you want to analyze the film – and I believe that people will – you’re bound to find even more messages. But you should understand that this is not a message movie. It’s a movie with brains. There’s a difference. There’s meaning, but its delivered with humor, wit, and buckets of blood. And if you want, you can just sit back and enjoy it as an original piece of science fiction and nothing more. It works both ways.
Chris Evans does a good job playing the haunted leader of the armed resistance. It’s a darker, more brooding role than we’re used to from Evans at this point in his career. Second-billed behind Captain America himself is Korean superstar and frequent Bong collaborator Kang-ho Song. Song plays a man who helped design the doors that separate the train cars and thus can help the resistance in their quest to reach the front. He doesn’t go willingly, however, and they must buy his services with drugs made from toxic waste. His daughter comes along for the ride. She’s played by Ah-sung Ko, who also played Song’s daughter in The Host.
The way in which the American cast and the Korean stars interact is interesting. Instead of asking Song to speak broken English or asking Evans to speak muddled Korean, the characters use sci-fi tech to translate their words to each other. It’s a fine solution, allowing both Evans and Song to deliver their lines in a way that’s most comfortable to them.
If there are issues to be found in the film, they can all be found in the first half hour. It’s not long before the film settles into its groove, but I do think the beginning is more cluttered than it should’ve been. And while there are some very fine performances in the film – again, Tilda Swinton is the best of them all – Jamie Bell fails to impress. He’s essentially playing the same character he played in Peter Jackson’s King Kong but he looks uncomfortable here and gives some really bad line deliveries. Bell hurts the film.
Despite some flaws, I think that Snowpiercer is one of the best films of the year. Beyond being an excellent film, Snowpiercer also exists as an interesting example of how Hollywood does things, and how too much originality makes studio execs anxious. TWC thought they had acquired a cool summer movie starring a bankable cast, but they got something a little bit deeper and a whole lot stranger than anticipated. In response, they wanted to suck the brains out of the movie. Thankfully, The Weinstein Company did the right thing in the end, releasing the film in its original form.
One hopes that instead of being afraid of strange new visions, the studios would embrace them. We need more movies like Snowpiercer. Despite the overcrowded dystopian and post-apocalyptic genres in movies today, Snowpiercer manages to feel like a breath of fresh air. It’s a bold film. Flawed and sometimes messy, but brilliant just the same.
I think that people are going to be watching and rewatching this movie for many years to come.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8.5/10