Monday, July 7, 2014


Bong Joon-ho's post apocalyptic thriller, Snowpiercer, took a long time to get an American release. The film first premiered overseas almost a year ago. It seems odd that anybody would stall releasing a film starring actors such as Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt and Jamie Bell, but despite the worldwide acclaim the film had received, the US release was held up due to the Weinstein Company, who bought the US distribution rights. Initially, the Weinsteins planned to edit the film down into what they considered a more marketable, action oriented cut, (did they learn nothing from the infamous Battle of Brazil?)* Thankfully, they relented and agreed to release the film unedited in the US, but the trade-off is that the film would only get a limited release.

Seeing as how, these days, films rarely get the chance to jump from small art-house releases to nationwide roll outs, if Snowpiercer isn't playing in your neighborhood, you might have to wait for it to come out on video, but it is worth it. The film takes place in a future where an attempt to curb global warming disastrously fails, plunging the Earth's temperatures to uninhabitable levels. The last survivors of the human race are on a train that endlessly circles the world.

It's an absurd premise, but other filmmakers have taken more believable movie premises and made them into outrageously implausible movies, and Snowpiercer's premise makes more sense once you realize it's a class conflict allegory. The very back of the train is a cramped, squalid slum whose inhabitants are not permitted to leave the car. Meanwhile the rest of the train's inhabitants are free to move about and live in luxury. One of the tail section's inhabitants, Curtis (played by Chris Evans,) decides to lead a revolution to take the engine.

Once the tail section's inhabitants make it into the main body of the train, the environment shifts from being a dark, gritty slum into a surreal and luxurious wonderland. All of the cars are extremely purpose-specific and instead of being cars adapted to fit certain functions, they are instead built like rooms in buildings on stable land. There's a nightclub car, a spa car, and even an aquarium car complete with an underwater tunnel. There's a particularly bizarre scene in a schoolhouse car, featuring a overtly pure and wholesome teacher.

In spite of strange environments of the various train cars, the movie itself doesn't feel too weird or surreal, because the protagonists remain firmly rooted in the environment of the ghetto they're trying to escape from. It's a dynamic similar to The Hunger Games, in which the Capital's residents live ostentatious lifestyles, and only look upon residents of the outer districts with disgust. The over-the-top nature of the luxury cars on the train only reinforce how out of the way the train's upper class go to live the lifestyle they want, at the expense of those in the back.

In case you're wondering, the film does address why the most bizarre aspect of the film's premise occurs, namely why the train keeps going on an endless loop instead of just staying in one place. The reason given may not be the best, or most plausible, but if the train just stayed still we'd all be denied the visual spectacle of intense battles in tight environments, or the strangeness of luxury amenities cramped into train cars. Snowpiercer balances it's surreal and realistic moments extremely well, allowing you to enjoy its stranger moments, while maintaining a very clear and focused plot.

Balance is actually a central theme to the story in Snowpiercer. The characters constantly remind the tail sectioners that the train is a closed environment, and one way or another it's an ecosystem that must be maintained. There are a few scenes sprinkled throughout the movie that argue that the way things are in the inescapable ark are the way they must be for humanity to keep on surviving, but usually before you can consider buying into the argument, the film hits you with a grisly revelation that keeps you rooting for the tail section.

Personally, I saw Snowpiercer as being a dystopian drama with elements of action, and not a straight up action movie, like the Weinstein Company saw it as. However, there are some pretty intense action scenes in the film, so their plan to edit the film into an action flick isn't completely unfounded. There's a pretty intense scene early in the film in which the tail sectioners, armed only with pipes and other blunt instruments, open a car door to find the next section is full of guards all armed with axes and pikes. The scene that follows is inevitably brutal and gripping, and somewhat reminiscent of the infamous hammer scene from Oldboy.

This isn't a soulcrushingly dark movie, though. To contrast the grittier aspects of the film, there's plenty of humor running through the movie. Some of it comes from the peculiarities of the front end of the train's inhabitants, and some from the tail sectioners being hopelessly outmatched by their combatants. Bong Joon-ho seems to fully acknowledge how crazy the premise of the movie is, and plays up the absurdity without going overboard, similar to the films of Guillermo Del Toro.

However, like I said earlier, this film is at its heart a drama, and the cast delivers some incredible performances. Tilda Swinton throws herself into the role of Mason, a mouthpiece for the head of the train. She's so quirky and unrecognizable in the role, its the kind of immersive performance one usually associates with Johnny Depp. However, the actor who really gets a chance to show what he's capable of is Chris Evans. He's obviously best known for roles in action movies, and a few romantic comedies as well, but I get the sense he's been trying to take on more serious roles as well, even if most of the ones he's had so far have been in movies that have gone largely unnoticed. That may change, as near the end of Snowpiercer, his character delivers a monologue about what it took to survive seventeen years in the tail section of the train that's a bit chilling at parts, but definitely shows he's capable of taking on a more dramatic role in a film not full of gunfights and explosions. This movie may also prove to be a breakout film for actress Ko Ah-sung, one of the surprisingly few Korean actresses in this South Korean movie. She has a supporting role in the film as a character that's oddly indifferent to the revolt she's partaking in, and is also responsible for some of the best moments in the movie.

It's a shame that the Weinstein Company opted to give this film a small release in the middle of summer, because it probably would have done quite well if released nationwide between January and March, which is a time of year often seen as a dumping ground for mediocre movies, and would have been the perfect time for a film like this to stand out. Fortunately, although Snowpiercer presents a very unique visual spectacle, it isn't one that necessarily needs a massive screen and killer sound system to be enjoyed at its best.

If this film does have one thing going for it's American release, it's that despite being a Korean film, it's primarily in English and has a cast primarily made up of Western actors, so it's unlikely that this version of the film will be undercut by an American-made remake way too soon.

*For those of you who didn't click through the link, and are unfamiliar with the so-called Battle of Brazil, Terry Gilliam's 1985 sci-fi dystopian film, Brazil, faced a similar situation as Snowpiercer regarding it's US release. Universal, which had bought the US release rights to Brazil wanted to recut the film, trimming down its running time and making it more upbeat overall. The US release was held up until Gilliam held private screenings of his original version in the US, ultimately winning Best Picture award by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The original version still didn't get released in the US, but Gilliam approved of a considerably less invasive cut of the film.