Train in Vain: Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’

Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer is a terrific, dark dystopian nightmare mixed with flashes of Terry Gilliam-esque absurdity and the filmmaker's own fractured frame of reference.

Bong Joon Ho
Weinstein Company
11 July 2014 (US)

The story behind Bong Joon-Ho‘s Snowpiercer is almost as exhilarating and as nail-biting as the movie itself. By now, the details are legend: the film was highly touted as the first major mainstream English language effort from the man responsible for Memories of Murder, Mother, and perhaps best known of all, the giant monster movie The Host. Adapted from a French graphic novel series Le Transperceneige, Oldboy‘s Park Chan-wook secured the rights to the property and gave it to his friend to direct.

After making a splash on the festival circuit, the Weinstein Company stepped in to distribute the movie in the West…and soon the trouble started. Scissorhanded suit Harvey Weinstein wanted a good “20 minutes” removed from the movie. He also demanded title cards, narration, and other ways to help an American audience “understand” the thriller. For him, it just didn’t “play in Peoria”. Bong balked, and thus began a publicity war which saw both sides dig their heels in for a long battle.

The end result means little to those outside the major markets as the filmmaker gets to release his two hour and five minute cut unaltered by Weinstein, but only in a limited number of theaters (at last count, 40). This means that plans for a standard commercial release against unstoppable rival Transformers: Age of Extinction is now a moot point. Instead, Bong will have to hope word of mouth will be stronger than Uncle Harv’s hatred of those who spite him.

Luckily, Snowpiercer is terrific, a dark dystopian nightmare mixed with flashes of Terry Gilliam-esque absurdity and the filmmaker’s own fractured frame of reference to offer a pleasant alternative to Michael Bay’s explosion-based arrested adolescence. Half cruel, half crazy, it’s a strong artistic statement from a man known for deconstructing genres to fit his cinematic aims.

The year is 2031 and the last remnants of humanity are riding onboard a high tech train developed by locomotive genius and wealthy tycoon Mr. Wilford. Years before, experiments in the atmosphere designed to defeat global warming had the opposite effect, reverting the entire planet back to one big Ice Age. On the planet-circumventing Snowpiercer, various compartments hold the differing classes. The rich are stationed at the front and enjoy untold luxuries. The back section is reserved for the impoverished and the criminals.

It’s here where Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) conspires with his buddy Edgar (Jamie Bell) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) to rebel against authority and get to the people in charge. Seeing his chance, he takes Mr. Wilford’s assistant Mason (Tilda Swinton) hostage, releases train expert Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) and his drug addicted daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) from their coma-like capture, and begins the assault. Along the way, they learn much about their transport, as well as the reality of what is happening outside its thick metal walls…and it’s not good news.

When it’s doing things right, when it’s measuring out its obvious social commentary beats among a visually arresting backdrop,Snowpiercer is truly magnificent. It’s like Brazil built out of steampunk, Monty Python, and Bong’s own brilliance. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen and yet reminds one of other similarly styled films.

There are aspects of the early ’70s sci-fi format in the film’s “us vs. them” ideals as well as moments that remind one of ’60s Stanley Kubrick. Bong doesn’t borrow so much as allow his influences to inspire his work, from The Matrix-like action moves to a terrifying sequence involving two warring factions armed with nothing more than axes which recalls his buddy Park’s hammer mob beatdown in Oldboy. Here’s a filmmaker who actually puts his homage to good use. Instead of mockery, Bong is making this material his own.

The performances push this concept even further. Swindon, who is rapidly becoming a go-to talent for the unique and unusual turns Mason into a deconstructed British bureaucrat, complete with by-the-book demeanor, shrill voice, and a look out of a John Tenniel illustration. She is so good, so endearing in her secret evils that we miss her when the narrative moves on. Similarly, Hurt has a few good moments as Gilliam, the wise old mentor archetype. When we first see him, we wonder about his homemade prosthetics. When Evans’ Everett explains what happened, the reveal is devastating.

Indeed, at almost every turn, the current Captain America delivers the dour, dark, downtrodden goods. We believe Everett is a desperate man, capable of anything, and willing to sacrifice whatever and whoever to get it. We also feel his loyalty and his sense of duty. When we discover his motives, in a monologue that prepares us for the finale, the turn is terrific. Evans pours his heart out, and we response to such sadness.

Because of its closed quarters setting, because we learn a little about life on the title train, Snowpiercer maintains its enigmatic air. It’s not thought-provoking as much as idea inducing, making us wonder about the quickly-glimpsed car full of businesses, the various stylized living arrangements, and what exactly the lowly workers in the very back are “needed” for.

There are some narrative gaps. *f the “caboose” is reserved for the labor force, we never see them actually work, and if they are simply around to make children (for reasons best left for the last act cameo and reveal) then that fact is never enforced. Instead,Snowpiercer survives on suggestion. Luckily, Bong is so good at such cinematic sleight of hand that we don’t mind what’s missing. In the end, it all comes together as a varied, visionary whole.

Some may be put off by the ending. In fact, Snowpiercer does suffer a bit from a “Hamlet” amount of fatalism, especially among its mostly likeable characters. The desire to film in English actually allowed Bong to bring in his Asian actors — Song and Go are great, by the way — in a novel and unique way, accenting their language issues with more high tech wonders.

Like the best speculative fiction, however, the film delves deeply into issues allegorically, sometimes in obvious ways, and in others, far more subtle. It may struggle mightily to make a dent in the otherwise Transformer/tentpole tired Summer movie season, but such effort is well worth it. Like Curtis Everett’s determination to make it from the back of the train to the front, it’s the journey that generates the most interest.

RATING 8 / 10