Contemplating the Engine Room: Snowpiercer

FILM, Film Festivals
img_snowpiercerWith Bong Joon-ho’s latest, you never know what’s behind the next door until you break through.

On paper, Snowpiercer is a risky enterprise: Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language feature is an adaptation of a series of three graphic novels, with a higher budget than all his other films combined, all set entirely inside a very long train circling a frozen world. The social allegory has the rich at the front and the poor at the rear, the latter leading a revolution that takes them the length of the train, and this premise begs any number of questions, not the least of which is: why are they even bothering to transport all of these poor oppressed people on this train? That’s just one of several questions that plagued me for the bulk of the running time of the film, and I wish I could go back into time and whisper into my ear: have faith, it’s Bong.

He’s earned that faith: I can’t think of a filmmaker with a better track record over their last three films. Memories of Murder, my introduction, demonstrated his ability to shift tone on a dime, taking on a serial-killer investigation with utmost seriousness while making room for hilarious moments of ill-considered flying kicks and egregious lapses in proper interrogation procedure. The Host took this tonal agility and strapped it to his reconfiguration of the monster movie template, gleefully jettisoning or embracing convention at a moment’s notice. Mother returned his work to a human scale, while maintaining a fascination with the monstrous.[1]

Movie fans desperate to see what Bong would do next have had a long wait. Snowpiercer has taken a tortured path to the screen internationally—Bong’s been in a wrestling match with The Weinstein Company, who wanted to cut 20 minutes. It’s a by-now familiar move from Harvey Scissorhands, utilized on everything from Cinema Paradiso to The Grandmaster, with varying degrees of filmmaker consent. Bong stood firm, however, and good that he did: removing that duration would be a nonsensical idea that would have gutted the emotional heart and ultimate plausibility of the film.

Snowpiercer is a wildly ambitious film, and while not without its faults, it’s incredibly assured. His direction of performances has translated into the English language largely intact. For those who know Chris Evans as Captain America, The Human Torch, or that guy from The Losers, his performance here as the reluctant leader of the revolution is revelatory, and he carries what appears to be a cliché character beat about resisting the hero’s call with enough conviction that I was willing to accept what seemed like screenwriterly contrivance. (Again, a misperception on my part: by the time Evans reveals his backstory, his reluctance hits home on a deep visceral level, and shows how much more there’s going on here than it appears at the surface.) Jamie Bell as his sprightly compatriot in revolt, Octavia Spencer as this year’s action hero you never knew you needed, and Song Kang-ho (of course) all satisfy as well.

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No Drudgery Train: the many and varied interiors of ‘Snowpiercer’.

One trap of adapting comic books to the big screen is that larger than life tonal elements that work on the page can jar in a cinema. It’s a trap Bong mostly sidesteps with thoughtful but unfussy design and modulated performances, but perhaps a couple of moments (the unexpected intrusion of Cream on the soundtrack, aspects of Tilda Swinton’s performance, and Ewen Bremner’s bug eyes) feel slightly off-key, a rarity in Bong’s work. Also on the back seat here is humour. While there are a couple of giggles, it’s by far Bong’s least humourous film, and some might feel it as a lack. The episodic train-car by train-car journey deprives the viewer of a sense of how far there is to travel, a fatigue that is appropriate (and that creates stunning effect in the front cars) but might weary some in the experience. And while I’m nitpicking, let’s add the variable quality of the visual effects: some stunning, some feeling unfinished and unconvincing.

It’s tempting to focus on what Bong gets wrong (much of it, likely, endemic to any possible adaptation of the source material) because, quite frankly, he gets so much right, and makes it look so easy that you take it for granted. His ability to expand and contract the pace of time in sequences—such as an epic mid-train fight on New Year’s Day that makes one wonder if producer Park Chan-wook stepped in with an idea of how to one up Oldboy’s famous hammer fight—demonstrates an unerring sense of the balance of the large and the small, the epic chaos and the intimate character moments. His boldest tonal choices as the revolution makes its way to the front—particularly Alison Pill’s pastel classroom—all pay off. And for whatever distance this film may have from his original ideas, the eventual theme that emerges—of the importance of family, no matter what shape they may take—leads to a finale that echoes The Host, in both unexpected horror and optimism.

It’s hard to know where Bong will go from here—a return to a smaller canvas or another giant genre film both seem equally plausible. You never know what’s behind the next door until you break through.

[1] I caught up with his debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite, somewhere along the way; it struck me as a solid first film, but not on the level of his other works. (Not that there’s any shame in that!)

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea/USA/France, 2013)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Doug Dillaman is an American expatriate living in Auckland. He wrote and directed the feature film Jake. He is writing his first novel, edits television for a living, and plays drums for Climate Change.