By Tom Nixon
While I loved Park Chan-Wook’s blessedly cinematic Shadow of a Doubt tribute Stoker, it didn’t have enough plot to garner more than a lukewarm international reception, and Kim Jee-Woon fared no better in stepping outside South Korea for the first time with his goofy Arnie-vehicle The Last Stand. Consensus holds that the country is still waiting for a truly successful leap into Hollywood, and who better to make that leap than the man responsible for Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother, films a number of people worldwide would call contemporary classics? Add to that a juicy post-apocalyptic premise, an all-star international cast including Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-Ho, Chris Evans, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and John Hurt, and the hype train was hurtling for Bong Joon-Ho’s first foray into English-speaking waters long before anyone had seen it. Harvey Weinstein was quick to step in, picking up the film for a North American release, while long-time fans were salivating at the thought of a Bong movie with such pedigree and finance driving it. As the coroner in Memories of Murder once intoned: “we don’t have the technology in Korea, we must send it to America”.
Alas, those with more than a cursory knowledge of Bong’s oeuvre may have anticipated the battles to come between director and producer, during which Weinstein repeatedly, publicly insisted on cutting twenty of Snowpiercer’s more outrageous minutes because they’d prove too much of a challenge for folks “in Iowa and Oklahoma”, before arriving at some kind of “truce”. Bong’s previous works made a stir not due to their accessibility, after all, but their weird tonal subversions of tired genre blueprints. His best film Memories of Murder was a reasonably absorbing procedural, sure, but it stood out mainly for its “dim-witted bonehead” characters, jolting transitions between comedy and despair, and a deflating lack of resolution – all attributes more-or-less alien to Hollywood blockbuster audiences, mainly because producers don’t dare take the risk. The Host fared better worldwide (selling more tickets than any other Korean film to date, in fact), but it remains a monster movie defined by narrative chaos, bizarro lurches between dark and light, and a family of heroes tragically lacking in logic or competence. Mother brought previously unseen doses of moral complexity and emotional intensity into the mix, further traits that Hollywood producers depressingly distrust, believing Western audiences to be in need of easy empathy, exposition and, presumably, a reassurance that everything is going to be ok.
It’s no wonder Weinstein was upset, then, as there’s no chance that everything will ever be ok in Snowpiercer, a film about a train with no destination, zooming around an abandoned world destroyed by the idiocy and hubris of humankind, fuelled by the sweat and blood of those at the bottom of the food chain. In Memories of Murder all certainty walked away until only a dark tunnel remained, and the monster of Bong’s next film found its home in the sewers; in Snowpiercer, years are measured by the passage through a similar such tunnel, and although the train always emerges the other side, darkness will be upon it again soon enough.
Not that this is an issue for our heroes at first, as the rear of the train doesn’t have any windows. Human rights have been abandoned in the name of survival, or as the elite like to put it, “the preservation of balance”, an oppressor’s way of describing a strictly regulated class hierarchy where people are born and will die within their station, no matter what debasements they must endure. Our reluctant heroes start out in the tail carriage; they’re working class cogs in the capitalist machine, forced to earn their icky protein rations through manual labour, periodically brutalised by guards and the occasional bureaucrat sent down to threaten these would-be rebels with the wrath of the great Willard, inventor and sustainer of the “perpetual-motion engine” on which this ark depends. Anyone who steps out of line ends up losing an arm; whereas in Memories of Murder amputation came about through drunken, impotent rage, in Snowpiercer it’s a noble symbol of martyrdom.
As the carriage’s inhabitants inevitably escape in pursuit of Willard, led by Chris Evans’ Curtis, they pass through ever more flamboyant carriages and sets, each offering their own video game-style obstacles to conquer. Painfully obvious and hysterical though it may be, Bong is ludicrously committed to his class allegory, and that’s often where the fun comes in, as each more lavish carriage brings crazier set-pieces and more lusciously colour-coded visual creativity (the cheapness of the some of the CG is forgivable given the well-documented production problems). But Bong’s signature tonal juxtapositions have always been something of a blessing and a curse, and never moreso than here as grace and bum notes rub shoulders, from a slo-mo shot of a snowflake drifting in through a bullet hole to the fiftieth time someone compares the train to, y’know, the world, in case nobody picked up on that subtle metaphor.
The decision to cram so many differently-pitched performances into one space sways from insanity to genius and back again. Chris Evans’ sober rebel leader Curtis recalls Hugh Jackman at his most bland, John Hurt shuffles around coughing out packets of world-weary wisdom like he always seems to these days, Octavia Spencer is given a disappointingly typical African American woman’s role (complete with dubious line about chicken, sigh), Jamie Bell is anonymous in his youthful frustration, the duo of Song and Ko provide solid comic relief but almost seem to be in a different film entirely (the translation device they use to communicate with the English-speakers might seem too convenient if it wasn’t so sporadically used – instead it’s just baffling). It’s hard to tell how much of this is derived from the source graphic novel ‘Le Transperceneige’, but only two performers really harness the pulp potential of the material; Tilda Swinton’s usual ice-queen persona might’ve fit her role rather well, but instead she evokes the kind of obnoxious, blithering bureaucratic caricature Terry Gilliam would be proud of, while Alison Pill steals the show with an eerily cheery musical number.
Unfortunately, a hilariously misguided, perfectly-delivered tortured monologue from the previously yawnworthy Evans isn’t enough to prevent Snowpiercer from losing steam upon its eventual encounter with Ed Harris’ Orwellian overlord. After an hour of keeping his characters in the dark (as is his wont), Bong’s final act is all exposition, and you can almost hear the locomotive grinding to a halt as Willard lays out every mechanism of this microcosm with classic supervillain gravitas. Unlike Bong at his best, this section is neither gleeful fun nor a disturbing dose of reality, and sure, perhaps he’s making a point; this painful attempt to merge opposite ends of the tonal spectrum only confirms the distance between them, much like how shortening the physical space between Curtis and Willard emphasises the allegorical barriers separating front and rear, haves and have-nots. Indeed, Bong may try to justify all manner of ostensible flaws by citing how they reflect the problems he has with pyramid structures of power, but the political satire is too flimsy and too on-the-nose to justify such clever formal conceits, and I’d happily sacrifice them for a few extra exhilarating set pieces. While studio tampering is a dreadful thing and I wouldn’t wish it on any film, it’s entirely possible that 20 minutes of cutting might’ve given the movie a considerable boost in momentum, although somehow I doubt Weinstein would’ve chopped the right bits. Even so, Snowpiercer is well worth seeing for its numerous high points, but in its unevenness it unseats The Host as Bong’s weakest effort to date (note: I haven’t seen his 2000 debut Barking Dogs Never Bite), falling off the tracks at the long-winded anti-climax.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.