Over the last few weeks, I’ve been on somewhat of a Korean cinema binge, off the back of one particular stunning film experience from one particular director from the East-Asian country, a certain Bong Joon-ho.
While Bong Joon-ho has been a popular director in his home country for some time, it was only really with Parasite that he broke into Western consciousness in anything even approaching a similar way. But it wasn’t his first taste of Western exposure, that came back in 2013.
Yes, the Korean auteur has indeed made a film in the West before (well, a Korea/Hollywood co-production, at the least) and it may not have been the greatest experience, by all accounts, with clashes with the film’s American producers being the long-lasting legacy of the production, which is a shame, because it’s a tremendously ambitious and well thought through concept, which is executed with Joon-ho’s typical flair and attention to detail, but we get ahead of ourselves.
It’s the year 2031, and planet Earth is in the throes of an apocalyptic Ice Age. All that remains of the human race all live on a train, which is constantly circumnavigation the globe. The train adheres to a strict class system, which sees the more fortunate people live lives of luxury in the front of the train, while the lower classes scramble to survive in the tail end, and in that tense and desperate atmosphere, revolt is inevitable.
It may be worth examining the problems between Joon-ho and the American distributors, to better understand why the release of Snowpiercer flew so far under the radar upon release, and why its existence is only now being re-evaluated in this post-Parasite world.
The American distribution of the film was bought in 2012 by The Weinstein Company. Now, anyone who has followed movie news over the past few years should know why this is bad news, given its disgraced former chief (who I shall not be acknowledged by name) and his subsequent imprisonment.
The said producer wanted widespread changes to the film’s final cut, so adamant that he wanted to cut 25 minutes of the film in favour of “more action”, and there is a popular story that has circulated far and wide about a particular ‘fishy’ shot, that Bong had to tell a little white lie to have included in the film.
Ultimately, after a long stalemate, and poor audience reception to the producer’s cut, Bong got his way and his ‘Director’s Cut’ of Snowpiercer was released… but with a catch. Possibly as punishment for daring to disagree with him, the producer pulled Snowpiercer from a nationwide release, restricting it to only selective cinemas, thus kneecapping any potential it may have had.
If we set aside this tale of producer pettiness and look at Snowpiercer with fresh eyes (which I always try and do) Is it an underappreciated gem? Well, yes, but I would also say that it isn’t Bong’s best film either.
As discussed previously, I’m no expert on his work, after seeing this I’ve seen a grand total of three of his films, but this film definitely sits at third place in terms of films of his I’ve watched; it’s definitely not back, and the concept and its execution is superb, it just didn’t grip me as Parasite and Mother did.
I reiterate though, it’s certainly a very good film, it feels like a fresh and new step in science fiction cinema, exploring a post-apocalypse scenario we haven’t seen that much of (an ice age) and combining it with Joon-ho’s typical eagle eye for class-based narratives gives you an incredibly combustible mix.
Yes, Joon-ho’s politics are writ large throughout this film, you could almost call it a director trademark at this point, to look at societies class systems and deconstruct them through his bleak visions.
Bleak is probably the optimal word for Snowpiercer, the situation of the tail-enders is one seemingly devoid of hope, they live dingy lives of scraping what they can together to survive, and when I say it’s ‘bleak’ I don’t mean that negatively at all; its bleakness gives it a unique and impressive atmosphere, it’s a film not scared to go beyond the typical Hollywood narratives of valiant heroes trying to create hope, instead it tells the story of a disparate group of people whose lack of hope means that they’re beyond caring about their fate. The abject misery of the film’s atmosphere is incredibly refreshing.
That last sentence might make me seem like I revel in the misfortune of others, but it’s true, in a world of torturous happy endings and virtuous leading characters, Snowpiercer is a breath of rancid, grimy, tail-end air.
The characters leading the revolt are not two-dimensional good guys, but rather a complex mix of those put down for so long and so low on hope that being beaten to death by the guards might seem like a relief, and the more you learn of the characters, the more you distrust them, you start to realise that in the situation they found themselves in, there is no place for heroes. A typical Hollywood hero in the situation these characters found themselves in would have been among the first to be killed, which gives all the ‘heroes’ we’re supposed to be rooting for a sharp edge of primal animalism that sees them gain the upper hand on their enemies (the guards) seemingly by just being more desperate and crazed than them.
There are a few sequences of pure cinematic genius also, not that we’d expect any less from Bong and his regular cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, whether that be the chaotic action sequences or the atmosphere-building of the enclosed living space scenes from the first act of the film, there are flashes of the genius we are used to from Joon-ho and Kyung-pyo.
Firstly, there’s an action sequence in the dark, shot entirely through night-vision and torchlight, giving a visceral and frantic feel to the scene, as the tail-enders claw their way forward through much better-equipped foes, as well as the juxtaposition in decadence between the front and tail sections, brilliantly showcased by a scene set in a classroom (where the teacher and students all have a kind of ‘Jonestown’ vibe about them and their adoration of their leader) as well as taking the journey through the multiple areas of the front-end, showing us the luxury enjoyed by a certain few, while a much larger group are eating each other further down the same train.
There was, however, moments that almost lost me in terms of the narrative, with the biggest culprit being an exchange of monologues towards the conclusion of the film that gives more context to the relationships shared in the tail-end. Its revelations come across as a bit contrived and spun together to force a further connection between characters who didn’t really need it. It is redeemed by the film’s climax though, which retains an unpredictable edge that was present throughout the film and dares to not further contrive a happy ending to a story that could never really have one logically.
The acting also enhances the experience, with Chris Evans giving a refined, almost introspective, performance as the leader of the revolt, Curtis. With brilliant supporting turns from talent such as Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris, this was a film with a talented cast that matched its potential for success, only to be let down by its petty, power-hungry producer steering it off a cliff at the box office.
For my money though, the highlight from an acting standpoint was Kang-ho Song, a regular collaborator of Bong Joon-ho’s who turned in the film’s most layered performance (in my opinion) as the security expert Namgoong Minsoo.
The fate of Snowpiercer makes me very sad; it’s an incredibly engrossing piece of science-fiction, tremendously acted and directed, whose failure stems from not a lack of quality, but a lack of interest from a backer who never really understood its appeal, and I’m certainly glad that it’s enjoying a resurgence and re-evaluation on the back of Parasite‘s success because it certainly deserves a second chance. It may not be the refined masterpiece that Parasite is, but it is an immensely enjoyable, if grim, cinematic experience.