Making the leap beyond regional borders for Asian filmmakers is not as easy as it sounds. The road to global domination, particularly with an assist from the Hollywood marketing machine is littered with the broken, bitter careers of many an auteur. For every Ang Lee there are countless Ringo Lams and John Woos. Added to that pile in the last little while are Kim Jee-woon (A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil), whose underrated The Last Stand fizzled at box offices almost everywhere, and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, JSA), whose aggressively artistic and completely pretentious Stoker turned a total of zero heads. Kim applied the same gonzo violent touch (almost the same) to Stand, but audiences weren’t keen on Kim’s hyperkineticism — or perhaps some saw the deranged Devil and steered clear. In Park’s case, there’s nothing less appealing to the mainstream than esoteric vampirism that may or may not be vampirism mixed with incest.
So the latest lamb to be led to box office slaughter is Bong Joon-ho. With an oeuvre that includes the black comedy-thriller Memories of Murder, the creature feature The Host and domestic weeper Mother, Bong has one thing going for him the others didn’t: diversity. Another advantage? Snowpiercer is an English-language Korean film. Bong had the comfort (foresight?) to bring the major players to his house (well, his rental in the Czech Republic), not go to them. Bong did things his way, with a lot of his crew and it paid off. Snowpiercer is a brilliant piece of miserableist, dystopian sci-fi that’s as clever and vivid in its world-building as Elysium was disappointing.
Based on the French comic Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is South Korea’s biggest budgeted film ever, but at $40 million it’s a fraction of its higher profile brethren. Like all the best sci-fi — or any film really — what Bong lacks in glossy tech he makes up for with creative photography (courtesy of DOP Hong Kyung-pyo) textural production design (from Ondrej Nekvasil), an evocative soundtrack (by Marco Beltrami) and most crucially, good old-fashioned storytelling (in a script adaptation with Kelly Masterson).
In the not too distant future, a poorly considered plan to reverse global warming plunged the entire planet into an ice age, killing off almost all life with the exception of a few thousand that made it onto the ark that is a perpetual motion train, the Wilford Corporation Snowpiercer. It hasn’t stopped circumnavigating the globe for 17 years, and it’s taken less than a generation to re-establish an even more rigid class hierarchy than existed previously. At the front of the train are the 1 percent, dining on fresh food and living in luxury. The caboose holds the 99 percent, in cramped, filthy bunks, subsisting on disgusting (man are they disgusting), gelatinous protein bars. Needless to say, revolution is simmering. The movement is led by one-time Wilford engineer Gilliam (John Hurt) and his young right hand, Curtis (Chris Evans). Curtis’ plan is to storm his way to the front car where Wilford himself (Ed Harris, rocking rich-guy silk PJs) resides and avenge the masses. What that means he doesn’t really know.
The bulk of the action involves Curtis and Co.’s slow march forward and conflict between them and the minister-sheriff Mason (a scene-stealing Tilda Swinton) and her jackboots. When she comes to the back to evangelise — and smack down the agitating riff raff — about why Wilford is great and good, it has the chilling, and infuriating, effect of the greatest propagandists. Helping Curtis are Tanya (Octavia Butler), whose young son was taken away to the front car with no explanation why, Curtis’ best friend, Edgar (Jamie Bell) and a junkie security expert that designed the locks on the train, Namgoong Minsun (Song Kang-ho). Revelations and conspiracies are exposed as they cross into each car, and the confrontations become more and more violent as Mason cracks down harder and harder to stop their progress — such as in the standout setpiece where rebels and elite thugs engage in a brutal fight as the train goes through a tunnel. A Korean thriller with French existential angst mixed in? The fight is gruesome.
Now before you get too excited about Captain America going darkside, a word of caution to Australians… and Brits and Americans and Kiwis. The Weinstein Company purchased the distribution rights outside of Asia, and word on the street at October’s Busan Film Festival was that considerable edits were done, and that Bong was intensely displeased. As of November there was no Weinstein cut at all, so how their “version” plays is still conjecture. Snowpiercer is dark stuff. It’s nihilistic and takes an unrepentantly dim view of human nature. At a shade over two hours, the film is long, but it’s not that narratively bloated. As with many of his films, Bong is efficient with his images and there are very few frames that don’t need to be there. He fleshes out this world with little details that go a long way to making a whole, but relies mostly on his stellar cast to organically bring the flawed, angry, dissolute, determined and terrified characters to life. That Swinton, Spencer, Hurt, Harris and Song turn in vivid performances isn’t news, but Evans, in a ballsy performance that’s a 180 from Captain America, is the real surprise.
Snowpiercer isn’t perfect and it has its clunky spots: the best friend screams phaser bait from minute one, the convenient “universal translators” are a cheesy way to get around Song’s lack of English, the train often looks ultra-CGI, particularly when things start to, uh, go off the rails. But those are minor quibbles in an otherwise strong, politically charged sci-fi epic that has the courage of its convictions. By all means see it, but if it clocks in at a theatre near you at 100 minutes, make sure to get online and order a Korean cut as soon as possible.