Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2013)
There are not that many filmmakers whose every movie is a guaranteed worthwhile time. Many of those have shuffled off this mortal coil (Kieslowski is an obvious choice) or retired (Bela Tarr). There are maybe a half-dozen I can think of with a sizable enough body of work to count (Amardeep Kaleka, for example, has only made one feature film, but man, what a film it is) and who have never put a single foot off the path. Joon-ho Bong is one of them. I’ve seen all five of his features (one of which, 2006’s The Host, is as of this writing the highest-grossing Korean film of all time; Snowpiercer is currently 10th on that list, and Memories of Murder 38th) and one of his shorts, “Influenza”, and they’re all good stuff. So I had high hopes for Bong’s fifth film, Snowpiercer, his first in English. And then it got mired in distribution problems. There were rumors of large cuts being made (reportedly as much as a half-hour), fights with the distributor, all sorts of things that held it up. Finally, it came to a limited selection of theaters in America. Was it all worth it? Yes.
Curtis (Captain America‘s Chris Evans) is a tail-ender—he has spent the last seventeen years of his life in the rear car of Snowpiercer, a massive train that circles the globe once per year, running on a perpetual motion engine. After an attempt to control global warming in 2014 backfired, turning the Earth into a ball of uninhabitable ice, the only survivors were those who managed to board the train. They have been living there ever since, circling the globe over and over again, eventually separating into a hierarchy—the upper classes at the front of the train and the lowest classes at the back. The tail-enders spend their lives munching protein blocks, not bathing, and imagining what life must be like for those at the front, but Curtis, with strong support from his best friend Edgar (Jumper‘s Jamie Bell) and mentor Gilliam (Alien‘s John Hurt), has decided that it’s time to make things a little more egalitarian on the train. In order to do that, he must both free Namgoong Minsoo (Oldboy‘s Kang-ho Song) from the prison car and avoid Minister Mason (The Man from London‘s Tilda Swinton). And, of course, survive a miles-long journey with opposition at every turn and a rapidly-dwindling supply of enthusiastic, but not too martial, cohorts with makeshift weapons.
It should be obvious from that synopsis (and equally from the trailer, if you’ve seen it) that Bong, who co-adapted from the graphic novel with Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), has a whole lot to say about classism. But it may not be what you think. Mason, in many of her scenes, harps on about the train’s caste system; everyone has a place, and that’s where they belong. But Curtis is a Horatio Alger hero from stem to stern; he wants to work his way up the ladder not just because he wants a place at the top, but because he believes Gilliam would be a better leader than Wilford (who is played by someone whose name I did not see revealed before I saw the film; that was one of its best surprises, so I’m not going to spoil it for you), who invented, and now runs, the train. Curtis is a man on a mission. But how much difference can one man and a cohort of assistants make, even in a strictly-controlled, closed ecosphere like the train?
Were this a fully-Hollywood production, directed by Michael Bay and produced by Roy Lee or something, the answer to that question would be “a great deal”. Curtis would go full Alger, the middle classes would line up behind him because they feel similarly oppressed, and Curtis would have a veritable army behind him for the inevitable final confrontation with Wilford, Mason, and the two terrifying, silent strongmen who are much of the power behind the throne (Police, Adjective‘s Vlad Invanov and Twice Born‘s Adnan Haskovic). Instead, as Curtis and his band make their way through the train, they discover that those above their station have been trained to look down on tail-enders their entire lives, and are more than happy to assist the upper classes in taking out the trash. Pieces of April‘s Alison Pill is both terrifying and hilarious as the train’s schoolteacher, and wait till you get a load of Miroslav Navratil. (He’s referred to in the credits only as “Giant”. That is not an exaggeration.)
But you don’t want to know about all that. You want to know why this movie was produced by Chan-wook Park. And I will tell you exactly what you’ve been wanting to hear: yes, the fight in the water car does indeed outdo the infamous hallway battle in Oldboy. The film is not an action movie the way you’re thinking of the term; there are long stretches of talking. (I like that sort of thing and even I thought a few of them could have been trimmed; to me, it was the movie’s one failing.) But when there is action, Bong does it right. It’s something he’d never done before, but with Park’s hand guiding him, he did it very well.
The cinematography is hideously grimy through the first half of the film, and it’s glorious. Towards the end it gets a little garish, but I think that was a conscious decision; you’re seeing the cars through the eyes of the tail-enders, who have lived in squalor most (or in some cases all) their lives, so of course it’s going to be garish. I thought it worked, anyway.
Another winner from Joon-ho Bong. If you haven’t had the chance to see it yet, hope you get it soon. This is one that, I think, will lose something in translation to the small screen. See it as big as you can and marvel at it. ****
Trailer. Red band. ’cause that’s how I roll.