The screening for this review was part of “An Evening with Bong Joon-Ho” at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, in participation with the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival which runs from June 27th through July 14th. This review will contain spoilers.
“My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed”
This quote comes almost half way through the run-time of Snowpiercer, and is delivered by a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton. It not only sets the tone for every cringe worthy moment to follow, but rather succinctly punctuates all that has come before it. And, though the quote is on screen targeted at the lead character played by Chris Evans, it is a fitting dig at the audience that has come this far and has been given little hope to work with. In other words, Snowpiercer is really fucking dark.
Based on a French graphic novel, Bong’s film does not follow its source material closely at all outside of its high concept premise. In both iterations, the tale involves a post-apocalyptic Earth that has frozen over with all of humanity house on an unfathomably long train that continuously circles the globe, with the tail of the train holding the poorest and the front holding the most wealthy of those who have survived. In the comic, the central story is that of two young people – one of the poorest folk and a more well off reporter – leaving the tail and trying to push forward. However, Bong’s film involves a completely different set of characters, no romantic interest and a rich v. poor revolution allowing for a story that is decidedly more socially relevant and much more reliant on conflict.
Much has been made of Snowpiercer entirely taking place on a moving train. And, well, it does. Post-apocalyptic cinema tends to fall into the scorched Earth/urban wasteland aesthetic and Bong’s film – rather organically – skips that over entirely. Very few films in the genre take a leap into changing what we know of our planet and the glimpses of the frozen tundra that has become Earth – rendered in not the greatest CGI – get the point across without having to resort to the overkill – in various ways – of something like Waterworld. Though the film constantly feels claustrophobic, perhaps even to a fault, it never comes off as restrained with the train’s appearance constantly progressing at the speed of the narrative, which also allows for it to remain obvious where the action is currently taking place. Speaking of which…
Snowpiercer is awesomely violent. In all honesty, considering how low key the source material is, I wasn’t expecting all that visceral of an experience from the film adaptation but what I got is the opposite of that. Do you like hammers, axes, knives and spears? You’ll get those. A lot of ’em. Considering how horizontal the narrative progression is, a few of the fight scenes play out like packed train car versions of the infamous hammer fight in Oldboy and after a while, the action becomes constant enough to feel like a never-ending ground floor version of Dredd in which our characters just keep opening door after door and dealing with what’s on the other end. The choreography is on point, with the actors all holding their own in the more intense sequences – we all know what to expect from Chris Evans at this point – and there were more than a couple moments that had the audience audibly reacting. Also, for anyone that grew up mastering the fatalities of Sub-Zero, just think about what a giant hammer does to frozen limbs. Start buying those tickets.
That all said, Snowpiercer isn’t all thrills. There is quite a bit of down time, tears are shed and twisty secrets are shared. It never gets overly self serious, with a self aware level of satire permeating the proceedings that isn’t too far off from Verhoeven’s genre work or the likes of Demolition Man, even if not as overt. None of this should come as a surprise for fans of Bong though, as The Host runs the emotional – and sensational – gamut, not all that unlike this one. It may mostly be in English, but his fingerprints are all over it. And, luckily, they stayed on it too!
By now, everyone must be aware of the uphill battle with getting this into US cinemas and getting it into them uncut, at that. Snowpiercer is not an overly long film at all – it runs 126 minutes – and not a moment is wasted. The Weinstein Company, no strangers to chopping up acquisitions, wanted to cut a significant portion of the film out for domestic release to make it easier for consumption by American audiences. What they wanted to cut, I have no idea. The film moves along at a fast pace, is in English, has plenty of action and legitimately has nothing to excise without negatively affecting the final product. Lucky for us, Bong got his way and we are getting to see it in all of its uncut glory albeit in limited theatrical release and VOD. But, hey, it’s finally here and it’s at least accessible by the majority of those who want to see it.
I was fortunate enough to having Bong present at my screening for an after feature Q&A. He seems very proud of the film and discussed its origins, which go back nine years at this point with him having discovered the source material while in pre-production on The Host. The majority of the conversation had to do with the technical aspects of the shoot, mostly regarding the visual effects, budgeting and production design but the big piece that shared is that this is the last Korean film to be shot on 35mm. After shooting Snowpiercer, Bong went back to South Korea to find out that every single film lab had shut down, requiring for processing to be done elsewhere. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that any 35mm prints have been made stateside but it looks great nonetheless and its nice to hear a major international filmmaker embrace the medium.
Snowpiercer is an anomaly of an international production – the cast and crew span at least a few continents and many countries – that not only comes together technically and narratively, but also has something to say about what happens when people from around the world are brought together. It may make these statements with the subtlety of a sledge hammer – or axe, take your pick – to the head, but it wears its convictions proudly and, most importantly, doesn’t use them as a crutch. It may not have the budget of a Hollywood tent-pole genre release – though it is the most expensive Korean film ever made – but it achieves as much, if not more, spectacle as anything currently playing alongside it. This is genre cinema for people who adore genre cinema. All of it. High brow, low brow and everything that falls in between. And, like the tail of the train and the front of the train, depending on who you are it will likely be one or the other.