dir: Bong Joon-ho, S. Korea, 2013
Now playing as an exclusive engagement at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and elsewhere around the country in limited release, is Snowpiercer, a formidable dystopian sci-fi action movie from the prodigiously talented South Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho. Snowpiercer is an international co-production designed to have broad-based global appeal: the script was adapted by Bong and American playwright Kelly Masterson from the acclaimed French graphic novel by Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, and the cast boasts an impressively motley crew of movie stars from Europe, Asia and North America (headed by none other than “Captain America” himself, Chris Evans). This being a Bong Joon-ho film, there is also a sly, undeniably Marxist slant. Bong, a member of the Democratic Labor Party (the most progressive in South Korea), is no stranger to subtly incorporating political messages into traditional genre fare. Memories of Murder (2003) was a slam-bang police procedural that also painted a trenchant portrait of life under a military dictatorship while The Host (2006) used the monster-movie format as the framework for an eye-opening anti-global-capitalist screed.
Snowpiercer continues Bong’s admirable trend of using Hollywood genre tropes to say some very un-Hollywood things by telling the story of how the few remaining survivors of an apocalyptic event are engaged in class warfare on a train that must continually circle the earth. The film’s “revenge of the 99%” plot, however, is staged first and foremost as a series of thrilling action set-pieces, which, along with the charismatic star turns and state-of-the-art CGI effects, should have been more than enough to appeal to the “Transformers crowd.” Unfortunately, stateside distributor the Weinstein Company appears to have seriously miscalculated Snowpiercer‘s commercial prospects. After a protracted and notorious battle with Bong over final cut (Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein wanted to elide 20 minutes and add an explanatory voice-over), the Weinstein Company ultimately decided to treat it as an arthouse specialty item rather than the mass entertainment it so obviously is. When I belatedly caught up with it on its 14th day of screening at the Music Box, the show I attended was sold out and scores of people were being turned away at the door.
The most impressive aspect of Snowpiercer is its dazzling production design. Bong has always made meticulous looking, image-driven movies and, now that he has the biggest budget he has ever been allowed to work with, he really lets it fly. The CGI landscapes of the earth as it might look plunged into a new ice age are nifty, but the interior design of the train cars is even more eye-popping. The film begins with images that are appropriately grimy, desaturated and drab as Bong focuses on the rear of the train; this is where the working-class characters (under the leadership of John Hurt’s Gilliam — no doubt a reference to the creator of Brazil) have been ghettoized. The visual style then becomes increasingly colorful and ornate as the back-of-the-train’s pointedly multi-racial coalition (which includes characters played by Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Song Kang-ho) mount a revolt and work their way towards the front of the train where the “one-percenters” are living in the lap of luxury. This dichotomy is not unlike the above/below-ground schism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: both films comment on the present day by imagining a future where the gulf between rich and poor is taken to a logical but disturbing extreme.
The best scene of all takes place in a train compartment that functions as an elementary school where children are being force-fed propaganda about Wilford (Ed Harris), the mysterious great white father who invented the train and lives in its engine. While the film ultimately belongs to Tilda Swinton — hilarious as Mason, Wilford’s second-in-command and a cartoonish villain buried beneath almost as much prosthetics and make-up as she wore in The Grand Budapest Hotel — she is herself momentarily upstaged in this scene; the talented young Canadian actress Alison Pill amazes as a schoolteacher leading the children through maniacally gleeful sing-alongs (“What happens if the engine stops? / We all freeze and die!”). While nothing in the film’s too-protracted climax can match the invention of this delightfully candy-colored sequence (nor an earlier, elaborately choreographed battle scene between the torch-wielding poor and the hooded, axe-wielding security guards of the rich), Snowpiercer is still far and away the best bet for anyone looking for a “summer popcorn movie.” Bong Joon-ho reminds us of something that Hollywood seems to have depressingly forgotten: that art and entertainment need not be seen as mutually exclusive concepts.
You can check out the trailer for Snowpiercer via YouTube below: