Dashing Through The Snow (Snowpiercer, 2014, Bong Joon-ho)
Even the casual follower of world cinema can tell you: the Koreans are just doing it better than the rest of us, at least when it comes to stylish, violent thrillers. Among their ranks, none stand taller than Bong Joon-ho, the mad visionary stylist who has produced no less than three instant-classics over the past decade or so: the probing, true-life serial killer drama Memories of Murder in 2002, the high-intensity giant monster movie by way of family drama The Host in 2006, and Mother, his twisted take on the amateur detective/”find the real killer” movie in 2009. Like fellow Korean breakout successes Park Chan-wook and Kim Jie-woon, for his latest movie, Bong has decided to appeal more directly to American audiences by making his English language debut. This has had mixed results in the past – I loved Park Chan-wook’s Stoker; I haven’t seen Kim Jie-woon’s The Last Stand but I understand it to be very much not up to the par of the man who directed A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw The Devil. Park chose to go for the art-house/indie crowd, whereas Kim went straight for the action blockbuster audience, going so far as to drag Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s old ass with him. The approach Bong Joon-ho has taken falls somewhere in the middle.
We open with some direct but not ungraceful exposition in the form of news broadcasts that detail how some well-meaning scientists, in trying to counteract global warming, accidentally doomed the world to a new ice age, wiping out the vast majority of humanity (whoops). Seventeen years later, the only survivors are the passengers of the Randian supertrain of the title, a kind of perpetual motion society where the haves live at the cozy front of the train and the have-nots in the dingy hyperpoverty of the rear. One such have not is our protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans, veteran of multiple nerdy sci-fi properties), and as we meet him we can already see that the seeds of revolt have been planted long ago. Curtis, along with saintly, crippled old mentor Gilliam (John Hurt, and boy is that the on-the-nose character name to end all on-the-nose character names), is planning to launch the first successful siege of the train’s front cabins. Along the way they must free political prisoner and expert lockpick Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona (Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, forming a mini-The Host reunion), rescue the kidnapped young sons of fellow passengers Tanya and Andrew (Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner), and contend with the iron-fisted fascistic rule of Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her legions of gun and axe wielding goons.
As you can tell from that description, there’s a lot going on in this movie. First I’d like to address something that some people might have trouble with: nothing about Snowpiercer makes any goddamn sense. I say this not as a criticism, just as a plain statement of fact. If you are the type to get hung up on how the titular train works, or how the various cars we see connect to each other in any meaningful way, or how all of what we’re presented fits into the oft-mentioned 17 year timeline, or the logistics of where the food comes from, I wouldn’t say that you’re wrong to do so, but you might be missing the forest for the trees a bit. Despite the grimy “used future” trappings of the set design, this is nothing close to hard sci-fi; it is, as you might have also figured out from the plot description, pure allegory.
Which is the second big talking point. Is Snowpiercer too heavy-handed in its social commentary? I lean towards “no,” although it bears mentioning that the movie is incalculably helped in this respect by the lingering memory of last year’s big piece of sci-fi social commentary, Neil Blomkamp’s interminable Elysium. Snowpiercer succeeds where that movie failed by swapping out laughably self-important seriousness for heaping helpings of dark comedy and a warped fantasy sensibility.
And that brings us to the piece that’s frankly a much bigger part of the film than the political message or the genre trappings, and that is the movie’s overwhelming sense of style. And here I am of a somewhat divided mindset. Certainly, a demented and frequently morbid sense of a humor is one of the hallmarks not just of Bong Joon-ho’s output but of the modern trends in Korean cinema as a whole, but I dare say that your enjoyment of the movie may hinge less on your appreciation of that country’s films than those of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (all it’s missing is the wide-angle lens closeups). Personally, I have a deep and abiding love for some of Gilliam’s films, but I think even his biggest fans would admit he’s a bit hit-or-miss, and Jeunet has never done anything for me. And with the exception of a vignette taking place in a kindergarten car presided over by a gloriously unhinged Allison Pill, a lot of the Gilliam-esque absurdity doesn’t quite work for me. To say that Bong aims for Brazil but lands at Alien: Resurrection would be cruel and unfair, but the thought did cross my mind.
The performances vary wildly. The two Korean actors give the best by a fairly huge margin, suggesting that maybe Bong just hasn’t quite gotten the hang of directing in English yet. The worst-in-show goes to Spencer and Bremner as the two bereaved parents, with the latter constantly mugging with unpleasant severity and the former giving a glassy-eyed and bizarrely unmodulated performance that reminded me far too much of the time she played an insane version of herself on 30 Rock. As the hero of the piece, Evans does a solid-enough job, coming off best in the scenes he shares with Song and in the moments when he is able to play straight-man to the comic weirdness going on around him. And speaking of comic weirdness, here comes Tilda Swinton’s completely deranged turn as the villain. It’s damn near impossible to describe, and is probably going to be the most purely subjective part of the movie; either you’ll delight in how far she’s willing to go with it, or you’ll be screaming for it all to end. I lean towards liking it, simply because Swinton goes for broke in a way you absolutely don’t see very often, although as with much of the film, I’m somewhat on the fence.
Certainly, once the film kicks into high gear about 20 minutes or so in, it remains propulsive throughout. The early action scenes are marred by some clumsy application of shaky-cam, but it settles down after a while, and it never stops being impressive how Bong, Mother cinematography Hong Kyung-pyo, and the design crew keep presenting us with fresh, visually stimulating sets all essentially based around the same shape, like some dream-logic combination of Alice in Wonderland and Das Boot. Despite all my qualms, despite the fact that this is my least-favorite Bong Joon-ho film yet, I’ll still give it a pretty unhesitating recommendation. For what’s essentially a Summer action movie, Snowpiercer is powerfully weird stuff (that it’s currently sharing screens with another of Michael Bay’s ethically and artistically rancid Transformers movies throws this into sharp relief), with a confrontational sensibility, a unique aesthetic, and an ending that refuses to chicken out from the implications it presents (again, making Elysium look extra stupid and naive). Even in a Summer movie season that’s been particularly strong, Snowpiercer still stands out and makes itself noticed.