I had the good fortune to be in Los Angeles when Bong Joon-ho’s new film, “Snowpiercer,” opened there mid-July. So, I dragged my mom to see it at the only place it was playing on the West Side, a somewhat run-down multiplex on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. Last I heard, the film is only getting a limited release in the States, unless it does well enough to “merit” a wide release. (No, I don’t understand the logic of that, either.) If you believe the word “merit” connotes any value other than a financial one, then “Snowpiercer” absolutely merits wide release. Frankly, since it’s made $80 million internationally, I’m not sure what the problem is in that regard, either. Whatever. It’s a surprising, engrossing, good-looking entry in the limited-resource dystopian genre–much better than most recent dystopian flicks. And you should go see it. And have your faith in summer blockbusters restored.
I’m not going to say much about what happens in the film because you need to go see it first. Then come back, and we’ll talk. What follows is really just some encouragement to get you out the door to a theater. (Do not watch it on VOD, if you have a choice. You will regret it.)
Bong directed the great 2006 monster movie “The Host,” which also starred Kang-ho Song. “The Host” has a fair amount of comedy, some of it pretty wacky, but like all good monster movies, the threat is born from a justifiable and now-familiar fear–in this case, the consequences of environmental damage. The toxic waste an American mortician on a South Korean U.S. Army base orders his Korean underling to flush down the pipes goes into the Han River. What could go wrong?
“Snowpiercer” is a grimmer look at an ostensibly similar but much more serious problem: global warming. The environmental horror is really just an excuse to winnow humanity down to a few hundred souls, trap them in a contained space, in this case a supertrain, and watch the “natural order” that results. The natural order in this case is a suspiciously familiar-looking 99% – 1% sort of split. Those who belong in the front live in comfort and the security of knowing that’s where they belong (and, perhaps more importantly, where others don’t belong), while the tightly-packed plebs in the back cars of the train wallow in filth, eating “protein” blocks made of ground-up trust-me-you-don’t-want-to-know.
Given this setup, the plot is hardly surprising–those in the back will fight their way to the front of the train. Yet, there’s a great deal of suspense and peculiarity created along the way, and the film plays around with dystopian staples like the idea of a special person who has been prophesied to come along and save everybody, à la Neo in “The Matrix.”
The casting is excellent–Song Kang-ho is always a kick to watch (in addition to “The Host,” check out the fine “Memories of Murder,” also directed by Bong, and “Secret Sunshine”). I was worried about throwing Captain America (Chris Evans) into a Bong Joon-ho universe, but Evans is really pretty good (and the film would collapse if he weren’t). And of course Tilda Swinton is, as far as I’m concerned, reason enough to go see any film. She is fantastic (and fantastically absurd) here, with maybe the best speech in the film–not surprisingly, about social order. Another favorite thing about the film is that one of the most important conversations in the picture takes place in English and Korean, and it works beautifully.
The film ain’t short at 126 minutes, though it’s not long by today’s tent-pole- “Transformers” standards for films that can verge on the unwatchable, no less. But for a film whose plot seems so obvious, the forward motion of “Snowpiercer’s” action never drags, even when the pace slows. If you’ve seen other Korean films, (“The Host,” say, or the amazing, grueling “Old Boy” directed by Park Chan-wook) the weirdness of “Snowpiercer” won’t strike you as much. But either way, the weirdness, much of it Bong’s and some of it, I think, cultural difference, is essential to the film, and to why it works. If you took out Swinton’s dentures, the avant-massacre carp, or Ewen Bremner’s nutty brilliance, it might still be good, but it wouldn’t be as astonishingly good as it is. Or as much fun, because however gloomy the film’s universe is, “Snowpiercer” is still a summer movie, dammit.
And, yes, my mom loved it.
I have every intention of coming back to write about “Snowpiercer” after seeing it again–on VOD, if I must. In the meantime, here are some other fine dwindling-resource dystopian films you might enjoy, as well as some other thoughts (with gargantuan spoilers, so beware) on “Snowpiercer.”
The Ebert site review of “Snowpiercer.” The site also has a review of Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host.”
Wonderfully entertaining roundtable of sorts on “Snowpiercer” by various Grantland staff. This will ruin most of the surprises in the film, so, seriously, don’t read it until you’ve seen the movie.