Whilst in Hong Kong, I really wanted to catch a local movie, but bad timing placed me there at a time when there was really nothing doing on that score. Fortunately though, Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” was doing the rounds. And lets face it… how often do you get to sit in a real cinema, watch a Korean film starring a mostly Western Cast, with mostly English dialogue, and with Chinese and English subtitles? A quick check in the memory banks says not often! Not only that, but this is a movie I really have been aching to see for an absolute age. It’s the third recent attempt of a major Korean Director to make a movie with a Western cast, after Kim Ji-woon’s solid but disappointing “The Last Stand”, and Park Chan-wook’s somewhat stultifying “Stoker” – these movies were made to some degree inside the Hollywood system. This one has a somewhat different provenance, so I was intrigued to see if it managed to work somewhat better.
Set in the near future, “Snowpiercer” posits a world where an attempt to stop Global Warming by introducing a chemical into the air has resulted in dropping the temperature to Ice Age levels, rendering live on earth pretty much dead. The last vestiges of the human race are on board a train, run by the unseen but omnipresent Wilford (Ed Harris). This train is powered by a perpetual energy engine, and goes on a constant circular journey around the globe. Life on board the train is very much one of two classes. The rich and wealthy who paid passage live a somewhat luxurious existence, whilst at the rear of the train, the poor eek out a fairly fetid existence, being sustained only by rather grim looking protein jelly bars. Obviously this causes tension, leading to a planned revolution, with the ancient and limb-deprived Gilliam (John Hurt) encouraging an attempt led on the ground by Curtis (Chris Evans) to get to the front of the train and take over. Freeing the drug addicted ex-security expert Namgoong Minsu (Kang Song-ho) and his young, equally addicted daughter Yoona (Ko Ah-sung) in an initial push, the select group push forward uncovering all kinds of secrets about the truth behind life upon this fast-moving Rail Ark.
Violent. Surreal. Talky. Depressing. These were my initial feelings about the film. And these are not necessarily bad things. In tone it reminded me much of those classic highbrow science fiction movies of the 1970’s, like “Silent Running”, “Rollerball” and “Soylent Green”, in that the high concept idea was really talking about more contemporary issues. At its core, “Snowpiercer” is really talking about the human condition in a sociological sense, about the place of people and class in the world. It is also smart enough to not paint everyone as heroic or villainous. There are few people here who can be viewed as wholly one thing or another, and as the story unfolds you will feel both sympathy and revulsion for those on all sides.
Visually, Director Bong does his best while working within the confines of what is basically a really big long Train. He manages to make it both claustrophobic and almost otherworldly, especially as we move along the carriages. As we move up the social classes, and into various aspects of the ecology of the Train, he keeps things always interesting. I would say he uses slo-mo once too often during some of the more violent scenes, but I think this can be excused as he is going for an almost dream-like surrealistic mood. It does have to be said that whilst the external CGI shots of the frozen outside world are pretty well realised, some of the computer generated work a bit later in the climax of the film are a little rough around the edges.
I haven’t read the source Graphic Novel (being somewhat obscure and French), so I am assuming he has taken the structure from there, which does mean some people will be put off by some of the consistency of approach in the forward storytelling journey. He also eschews the visual side of things in the final third of the film, giving us a very talky couple of scenes between firstly Evans and Song, and then Evans and Harris, which whilst important, do somewhat unbalance the narrative. He also seems to drop the ball on a couple of aspects – the universal translation device that facilitates Song’s lack of English is used somewhat randomly, and Ko’s prescient ability is totally forgotten about after the first hour.
I might be a bit controversial now. You probably have seen the controversy around the film being recut for Western Audiences. Details of what actually is being changed have been sketchy, other than the threat of 20 minutes being taken out. The film is Korean after all, and is a little flabby in running time, so I can understand why this might be the case. I don’t agree with it per-se, but I do understand. Maybe I will come back to this when I see the Western version, but I do wonder if there is some rediting opportunities that could actually serve the film well. The real explanation of what is going on with regards to this train is shown at the mid-point of the film, and I can’t help feeling that the film may actually be stronger with this being shown at the beginning of the film so that we get a fuller understanding of what and why certain things are happening. It’s a tough call, as the vision of the director is very important, but on the other hand, as popular as the film has been in Korea, I think it might struggle with a broad Western Audience in the current version.
On safer ground, the performances are pretty great all round. Evans shows a depth that I didn’t expect of him, Song is as great as ever. Ko is utterly brilliant, and seriously deserved much more screen time. On the other hand, Jamie Bell is pretty annoying (and seems to be Irish for no real reason, which actually makes zero sense when you consider his later revealed back story), and Tilda Swinton gives a performance that is so Marmite, it will possibly either steal the show or make you hate every moment she is on camera.
This is one of those times I know I have been rather harsh on the film. I actually really enjoyed it, and even though I left the cinema in a somewhat depressed mood, it actually means the film made me think and affected me in my gut. It does however lack just a little polish, that stops it being a truly great movie. Recommended for sure, maybe even highly, but it isn’t quite the masterpiece I was maybe hoping for, and in the long term I think it will be a minor success on a very strong directorial CV.