Published on July 15th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Bong Joon-ho crafts the anti-blockbuster — it goes off the rails in places, but it’s inspired and unique enough to show the Korean director’s brilliance.
Snowpiercer is the latest cinematic exercise from South Korean master director Bong Joon-Ho, one of my favourite International directors out there right now; the Feedback Society’s Dave Scaddan profiled him in this piece. Snowpiercer marks the first time Bong has made an English language film with a gaggle of Brit and American actors alongside South Koreans, like his go to man, Song Kang-ho. It’s based on a French graphic novel series called Le Transperceneige, which Bong reportedly read in one go while standing in a bookstore.
The film is best classified as an anti-summer blockbuster I suppose, veering off the tracks of the story set up to pummel through much stranger territory. It takes place almost 18 years after the fall of humanity due to scientific measures taken to try and control climate change. The planet has become a barren, icy wasteland and the entire human race survives aboard The Snowpiercer, a train specially designed to be a self-sustaining ark. It barrels across the Earth, able to plow through the ice and snow, containing a human cargo that can never leave the train. The movie is a class struggle allegory, as the people in the back of the train are the lower classes, rising up to stage a coup against the upper class that inhabit the front sections of the train.
It’s an ambitious project, worthy of Bong Joon-Ho’s usual talent, though some of its far out ideas are like high wire work — thrilling when it works in the film, but also occasionally threatening to bring the whole thing down on our heads. Without giving too much away, the main bump on the tracks for me was having the film switch from straight ahead action movie to strange, surreal, Alice in Wonderland mode.
There’s a grim, dystopian sci-fi action thriller tone in the beginning that eventually sheds its skin to turn the proceedings nothing short of fucking bananas. At first I was put off by this, and how it affected the pacing — like, why would they stop for sushi (among many other things they stop for) if they’re in a hurry to pull off this takeover of the train? I quickly realized I was missing the point; there’s a weirdo of a movie subversively buried in the summer action movie wrapper. As the film careened into a state of being bonkers, you could see brilliant patterns forming in the ice. It’s a bizarre, hilarious, violent fever dream. You probably lose the urgency of the plight of some of the characters with this, but you gain something much more unique.
The cast is led by Chris Evans, who mostly succeeds at pushing past his bro-ness by using his new ‘acting’ technique, the Captain America this-shit-ain’t-right pouty eyes. Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and John Hurt fill out their roles well, Alison Pill has a short, but memorable role, but it’s Tilda Swinton that brings the ruckus. She’s an amazing actress and she’s as peculiar as she is funny here.
Snowpiercer was a lot weirder than I thought it would be going in, partially because of Bong Joon-Ho’s Korean sensibilities and ideas about humour, but also because he’s purposefully crafted something wonderfully strange and artistic. It’s not always subtle, but there are messages and good character moments that happen on this bullet train to adventure. And there’s probably enough crazy axe fights in there for non-artsy action fans to be subverted into liking the film. It sags in places, and it goes on a bit too long, but without the chances that Bong is taking here, you wouldn’t have some of the more inspired moments. When every summer movie starts to feel like they’re being churned out from a strict blueprint, Snowpiercer shows us why we need more filmmakers with an X factor that can have ideas that go live without a net; fearless chances to shatter expectations like so much ice, and create brave new directions for us to explore.