Monday, July 21, 2014


Bong Joon-Ho is proving to be a director of considerable range. Since his breakthrough film Memories of Murder, he's ping ponged between somber procedurals and inspired popcorn fair. This apparent bipolar mindset is evident in the films themselves, all featuring broad slapstick humor, political undercurrents of varying subtlety and dark brutality, often in rapid succession. His latest film, Snowpiercer, loosely adapted from the French comic of the same name, aims itself squarely towards blockbuster crowds, skillfully combining the relentless action of George Miller's Road Warrior and the broad societal statements we might expect in a Fritz Lang film.

It's 2031 and mankind has inadvertently frozen the planet trying to solve global warming. The last remnants of humanity survive in the massive, titular train which endlessly circles the globe once per year. In such post-apocalyptic worlds, repressive social orders often assert themselves. Here the rich live luxuriously at the front while the poor live in horrific squalor at the back. The film follows Curtis (Chris Evans) as he tries to engineer a car by car takeover with his fellow caboose dwellers.

On the surface that hook might appear cloyingly simplistic, and would be in the wrong hands. It's easy to watch the trailer and recall last years insultingly dumb sci-fi allegory Elysium. But Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before The Devil Knows You're Dead) make the goofiness work by rendering the world with countless bold, imaginative strokes that are often as mysterious as they are revealing. Take the strange, black cubes our heroes are forced to eat, or how the guards take people away based on maddeningly bizarre criteria, sometimes asking for trained violinists but more often for children of very specific heights.

Then there are the characters. it's a large ensemble, so some sadly remain generic archetypes (albeit all gamely played), but many are made memorable with wonderful little quirks. There's the kindly mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) who for reasons revealed late in the film is a limbless torso making due with improvised hooks and canes. An artist who draws propaganda for the poor and Bong regular Song Kang-Ho awesomes things up as a security expert addicted to a drug made from industrial waste. The film's greatest performance though undoubtedly belongs to Tilda Swinton as Mason, a blood thirsty Thatcher surrogate who has a heated, possibly religious fervor for the train and its 'sacred engine' and is taken gleeful condemnations of Curtis's incursion: "Precisely 74% of you will die!" she cries while watching a fight through opera glasses.

Indeed, while the rebellion initially proceeds with the clean precision of a heist, it soon becomes a battle of blunt force and attrition. Bong has always had a dexterous sense of blocking which he puts to good use on the film's inventive action beats. The best of which takes place entirely in a single car but but goes through six distinct phases including near derailment of the train, tunnels and even finds time for Bong to homage the famous hallway fight from Oldboy. So much action gets tiring because it only attempts one note. Bong's action succeeds by never doing the same thing twice, unafraid to suddenly upend things, furiously determined to milk every possible train related gag.

But the train isn't merely a place for cool fights, Bong's attempts at political subtext may end up being a bit literal, but it spawns some jaw dropping production design in the train. Each car serving a different purpose and is its own self contained world able to ignore those around it. Indeed one of the most unnerving details of the film is how the aristos eerily seem not to notice our ever dwindling group of increasingly blood-stained rebels. The film occasionally suffers from a few dully conceived character arcs (Curtis's sadly among them) that feel like they were pruned back from a longer script, and maybe having the villains state their philosophy a few too many times without enough progression. But it hardly matters, Snowpiercer is a film of such propulsive gonzo imagination that it can spare to have a few details fall off the track, so to speak.

Grade: B+

Note: Snowpiercer is currently playing in very limited release and will hit VOD very soon. It was intended for wider release before Bong got into a notorious battle with U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein who wanted to cut 20 minutes of the film's completely reasonable 125 minute run time. Weinstein agreed to leave the film alone but in return will only show it on art house screens (where it plays to sold out crowds). It's a shame not just because it limits how many people will be able to see the film, but because this film is clearly meant for the full multiplex experience (a good 3D conversion would be fantastic). It's possible that Weinstein felt the film too dark and somber for the popcorn populace, or it could be just another example of Weinstein's apparent disrespect for Asian movies despite the money they've made him.

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