Film of the Week: Snowpiercer
What does it take to make a film maudit? Bong Joon Ho’s futuristic train story Snowpiercer pulls into U.S. theatrical stations this week preceded by several months of speculation on the likelihood that Western audiences would never see Bong’s original cut; the director was for a long time involved in disputes over The Weinstein Company’s proposal to cut the film, and to add opening and closing voiceovers. The film arrives in its original 125-minute cut which gives it a certain skin-of-its-teeth prestige, but also makes it that bit harder not to judge Snowpiercer as a freak “case” rather than a legitimate movie.
In any case, Snowpiercer already sounds so bizarre as to seem as if it were some hypothetical venture, a wild cadavre exquis dreamed up by soju-drunken Korean genre buffs. It’s a postapocalyptic action adventure based on a French graphic novel, shot at Prague’s Barrandov Studios, set on board a futuristic supertrain, and starring Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Korean star Song Kang-ho, and serial Marvel hero Chris Evans. Writer-director Bong has long excelled at tweaking genre, notably in monster movie The Host (06) and in his super-tantalizing 2003 police thriller Memories of Murder, which pre-emptively out-Zodiac’d Zodiac by four years. It turns out he’s absolutely in his element with Snowpiercer, a genuinely spectacular project that has the imaginative and philosophical dimensions that most blockbusters would never dream of venturing into.
In the world of Snowpiercer, as we’re reminded throughout, “the train is the world.” The film’s flamboyant internationalism, and the fact that Bong has attempted to cram so much imaginative richness into a relatively small package (this is only a 125-minute film, pretty concise in comparison to the excessive Hollywood tent-pole running times we’ve become used to), are part and parcel of the film’s ambition. For all its weight and seemingly cumbersome monumentalism, Snowpiercer is actually as streamlined and efficient as the train itself.
The film kicks off, in almost derisory shorthand fashion, with a routine technology-gone-too-far premise: humanity launches a scientific strike against climate change and (oops) ends up plunging the earth into a new ice age, killing all life forms except a handful of human survivors. They end up traveling in perpetual motion on a train that girdles the globe, and which is run on strictly hierarchical principles: the plebs travel at the back, in squalid cramped darkness, while the privileged ride up front in opulent splendor. And right up in the front carriage, in fabled isolation, is the driver-god: engineer-inventor-dictator Wilford, whose heavily promoted paternalism holds everyone in its sway. Every few years, however, the back-carriage masses revolt and attempt to charge their way to the front of the train, only to be mercilessly repelled by Wilford’s militia.
There’s something in the film’s beautifully simple dystopia to appeal to everyone: for Western audiences, parallels with Occupy protests against economic and governmental abuses; for Koreans, thoughts of Kim Jong-un in the North and relatively recent memories of the military rule in the South; for cinephiles, the realization that we’re essentially watching Metropolis arranged horizontally rather than vertically.
As a feat of staging, Snowpiercer is one of those dramas that contrive to whip up dramatic momentum despite being restricted to one claustrophobic locale. It’s a tradition that runs from Hitchcock’s Lifeboat to the likes of Cube and The Raid (for static, or relatively static locations); and taking in Speed, Runaway Train, Air Force One, and Lars von Trier’s Europa (closed spaces that actually move). The brilliance of Snowpiercer, and of Hong Kyung-pyo’s photography and Ondrej Nekvasil’s production design, is that the film’s closed space seems to expand as the action moves along the train, from the cattle-car surroundings of the people’s quarters, in muddy shades of brown and green, through a series of ever more bizarre, visually stylized compartments: greenhouse, walk-through aquarium, candy-colored schoolroom, yellow-lit sauna, nightclub carriage with adjacent chill-out room where ephebes loll in fur coats. Once we reach Wilford’s lair, we realize that the Snowpiercer contains everything that any Rotwang-style mad architect or earthly deity could require, all squeezed into the width of a standard-gauge rail track.
Such is the film’s magical impossibility—the conceit that all humanity, or what’s left of it, could be fitted into a single train of apparently normal width, with just one corridor leading from one end to another. Where do the privileged up front actually live? Where are the domestic and engineering staff who presumably keep the train going, clean the place, do the catering—as opposed to the rear-carriage masses, who seem to be tolerated passengers rather than an actual labor pool? Snowpiercer doesn’t make sense in either spatial or social terms—but why should it? As metaphor, conversely, it’s extremely rich—and it’s precisely because things don’t add up logically (even in the minimal way we normally expect them to in blockbusters) that the metaphor works all the better. Snowpiercer is a stark dystopian cartoon, as boldly schematic as Fritz Lang’s pyramid picture of society, or as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 futuristic novel We.
The action is set in 2031, 17 years after the train left the platform, and concerns an attempted revolution that seems likely to get further than its precursors. Its ostensible leader is a wizened sage, cutely named Gilliam (John Hurt, who else?) who’s lost a limb or two over the years; but its real driving force is Curtis (Evans), a tight-lipped tough with a wiry, wisecracking Irish sidekick (Jamie Bell, who gets to use his Billy Elliot athleticism in assorted bursts of whizbang action choreography). Curtis’s intended ally in the uprising is Nam (Song), a Korean security expert who designed the train’s locks, and who’s currently imprisoned in a morgue-style locker, allegedly because of his addiction to a putty-like drug called Kronol; his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung, from The Host) has her own crucial destiny.
Trying to block the insurgents’ way is Wilford’s taciturn heavy (Vlad Ivanov, from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Into the Fog, who I like to think was cast specifically to add appeal to aficionados of somber Eastern European art cinema—now that’s the way to broaden your demographic). The real arch-fiend of the film, though, and the person who imparts the absolute tang of exoticism, is Tilda Swinton as Wilford’s right-hand woman Minister Mason—the latest move in Swinton’s bid to be the female Lon Chaney of our time. Wearing thick spectacles and a gobful of false teeth, and speaking in a broad Northern English accent with extravagantly rolled R’s (“prrre-ordained”), Swinton is a memorable and very funny embodiment of petulant, pompous authority. Her Mason is a prickly, craven apparatchik, forever illustrating the given order with bizarre speeches: the lecture featuring the line “Would you wear a shoe on your head?” is going to become one of those classic quotable oddities, on a par with “I drink your milkshake!” in There Will Be Blood. (Bong co-wrote the script with Kelly Masterson, who’s presumably responsible for the English-language wit.)
As befits its theme, this is an international film that’s, strictly speaking, from nowhere, and that settles nowhere. You can’t quite say that international humanity is represented proportionally—despite a key character played by Octavia Spencer, the train’s population is predominantly white European—although the ending, which is as apocalyptic as you’d hope, makes it fairly clear where Earth’s ethnic future lies. Having two heroes, Curtis and Nam, operating with entirely different agendas is an astute way to maximize appeal to Western and Asian audiences. This also affords a neat brawn/brain dichotomy, with Evans projecting butch scowls through his beard (he’s shot to maximize his sculptural qualities, his face sometimes resembling an Expressionist woodcut), and Song smiling enigmatically through wild hair, offering a more impish variant on the bad-boy hero template. The language issue is smartly dealt with, Nam speaking only Korean that’s instantly translated by a throat-held gizmo, while his choicest wisecracks at Curtis’s expense are kept for the subtitles.
It’s not an entirely smooth ride, which is the point: the film’s fundamental strangeness lies in the disjunctions from carriage to carriage, but the schoolroom scene, with Alison Pill as an eager-beaver pedagogue, comes across as jarringly zany satire. There are some great action scenes along the way: notably a slowed-down axe battle in the dark. Yet not delivering the expected thrills at the expected points is the film’s boldest strategy: just as we think we’re about to reach Wilford and the climax, Bong halts the action and has Curtis deliver a monologue that’s unexpected and oddly touching, and that fills in the backstories of three characters in a most disturbing way. The film gets even more overtly philosophical once we reach the engine room and we discover the principles of social control on which the train’s sealed-in system is run. As for the ending of this wild, entertaining, thought-provoking ride—rest assured, things don’t tie up the way they would if, say, Michael Bay were stoking the engine.
(Oh, and did I mention Ewen Bremner’s arm? You have to see what they do to Ewen Bremner’s arm.)