Dir: Bong Joon-ho
The fuss and the furore around Snowpiercer has placed a large shadow over the movie itself. Filmed back in 2012, the movie was bought for the western market by the Weinstein Company, who demanded cuts be made to the two-and-a-half hour long edit. Director Bong Joon-ho dug his heels in, and it now seems that the director’s preferred version is the one that audiences will see, although there is a worry the film will be dumped by its distributors. It’s a shame when behind-the-scenes bull-poop distracts from the movie itself, especially when the film is as bold and interesting as Snowpiercer. It’s not perfect, but it deserves a wide audience. The prevailing fear is that it’s just not going to get it.
Based on the graphic novel series Le Transperceneige by Jean-Marc Rochette, the film takes place in a frozen dystopian future, where the remaining surviving humans are housed on board a massive train, perpetually moving through the icy wastes on rails that span the globe. A social class system is enforced, with the rich elite taking up the front of the train, while the poor underclass huddle in the back end. They are fed small dark bars of protein goop that barely resembles food. Children are regularly taken, and no one knows why. They are beaten, threatened, told to Know Their Place. A plan reveals itself; Curtis (Chris Evans) and his crew, including crass Edgar (Jamie Bell) and wisened Gilliam (John Hurt) plot to break through to the front sections and take control. The security forces, under Minister Mason’s orders (an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) try to hold them back. They press-gang security expert Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) into helping them navigate the dangerous and disparate sections of the train.
Basically, it’s a bonkers concept, and the direction is as unconventional as you might expect. The film is a joint South Korean/American production, and mixes two different approaches to filmmaking. For the most part, the style skews American; the stars, the music (Marco Beltrami’s memorable score is occasionally and surprisingly reminiscent of John Williams or Hans Zimmer) and the special effects. The film’s more idiosyncratic touches seem to come from Joon-ho himself. It’s a violent, brutal film. Between the stylish action scenes are surreal, sometimes nightmarish set-pieces. There are light moments and even a few laughs, but there are also gut-punches that will hit you hard.
The performances are solid throughout. Swinton must get acknowledgement for her remarkable and completely batty turn as Minister Mason, vaguely channeling an even more deranged Margaret Thatcher. Evans does his ‘hard man’ shtick once again, but he improves as the film develops, his eyes and actions showing righteous anger very well. The visuals are impressive considering the fairly low budget, thanks to Boon-ho’s direction and Hong Kyung-ho’s cinematography.
The political facets aren’t exactly subtle. The best sci-fi usually reflects real life, and there’s plenty to chew on here. It’s the political dimension, alongside how unusual and ferocious this film is, that makes me think this film may not be the hit it deserves to be. It has its flaws; you could spend a fun hour or so poking holes in the shaky plot. But it’s a striking piece of work. It remains to be seen how it will fare at the box-office; it’s the kind of bold and original work we always cry out for but rarely support.