Bong Joon-ho, and only Bong Joon-ho, would have a film that features its protagonist tripping on a fish, in slow-motion no less, during an axes-out action scene. Bong, and only Bong, would make a film that allows the wildly divergent performances of grim revolutionary Chris Evans and villain-out-of-a-Roald Dahl book Tilda Swinton to successfully play off each other in the same space. And how many filmmakers would make a blockbuster that has the audaciousness to suggest, especially since the film itself thrives off a directly parallel narrative structure of rigidity, that structural disbandment isn’t enough; that wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch may be the best solution to humanity’s suffering?
For those of you just getting on the Bong Joon-ho train; welcome. It’s a topsy-turvy world here, where this filmmaker’s greatest strength, constructing a tonal playground within genre films, would be anyone else’s weakness. His is a consistent inconsistency if you will. A strangely cock-eyed and playful sense of sick slapstick humor, a kind found in other Korean films but never to this degree or application. I always sit there marveling “how does this work?” Go back to the mourning scene in The Host or the chase sequences in Memories of Murder; the pitch black hilarity of bodies bumbling awkwardness presents itself in intensely serious or emotionally wrought moments. Despite there being much to love in Snowpiercer’s deployment of action, Bong relies too heavily on shaky-cam amidst broader conceptual inventiveness, trying to create chaos in the claustrophobic space rather than playing into his penchant for the Clumsy Body Ballet. It’s the only somewhat significant disappointment with the film I can claim, largely made up for by Bong’s outside-the-box approach to depicting decimation and physical conflicts.
The film’s structure and the train are uniquely one and the same. As we rise up the ranks the train design intricately details quarantined worlds of increasing color, imagination, and fanned out purpose. The gaps of the world gradually fill in for us and the characters. Narrative is literally pushed forward.
We’re in the middle of an endlessly downbeat trend of self-serious blockbuster fare. Post-apocalypse looks and sounds the same, house style reigns supreme (thanks Marvel). Studios are petrified of projecting anything other than gravity. ‘Humor’ is either absent, forcibly injected via side characters, or filtered through the unappealing character trait ‘arrogance’. By contrast, the world of Snowpiercer is like a vital antidote, inspired by the best bits of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (pre-whimsy overdose days) among others. Worlds within worlds of immaculate and invigorating production design. These spaces are used for all kinds of mayhem, as building blocks for creative and varied action, even down to the way the train’s movement itself, not just individual car settings, contributes to form and story on at least two separate occasions (night goggles and going around the bend).
Snowpiercer is also self-aware, having its first act look, and feel, like current filmic dystopia. World building mostly comes through naturally in dialogue or constant corners. One gets the feeling that repeat viewings will yield many rewards, always picking up something new along the detail-oriented way.
Even on a first viewing, there are so many tangible details that work their way into story, bringing the characters experiences, both daily and uncommon, to life. The restricted perspective of the proles, Happy New Year!, the Candy Land classrooms and propaganda, the contrast and mystery we feel as the woman in yellow visits the stables, missing limbs, are bullets extinct?, protein bars, the telling and unexpected relative indifference portrayed in the sushi scene, the last cigarette on Earth, the creation and use of cautionary tales, train and time being inextricable, train babies. The list goes on and on and on.
Curtis (Chris Evans) as the ‘hero’ is deconstructed and turned on its head in a way that recalls this year’s The LEGO Movie (in that case the ‘chosen one’). Curtis is kept a very narrow character; all these folks in the lower cars are defined by their plan and their goals. When we finally learn more about him, it cripples the rendering of this ‘reluctant hero’. His backstory (so horrifying it crosses over to being, again, weirdly funny) suggests a possible double feature with Gremlins for their out-of-nowhere Whoa, Shit Just Went Dark monologues. This is also the moment when A. focus and motivation shifts towards Song Kang-ho’s former prisoner Namgoong Minsu and B. Curtis becomes tempted by Wilford (Ed Harris). Was it worth losing so many people just to get to the front of the train? Is revolution more costly than productive? Is the logic of the system just the bitter truth of their circumstances, a necessary order amidst otherwise chaos? Or is Namgoong Minsu’s idea of obliteration, and beginning again, the way to go? Snowpiercer seems to takes up with the latter although it’s, again, more shaded than that, allowing Curtis his final act of personal redemption and an open-ended ending that can be seen as optimistic or pessimistic depending on how you look at it (Bong seems to feel optimistic, me a bit of both).
Snowpiercer’s messy absurdities coincide with the tightness of the world and structure, putting Bong’s commitment front and center. It’s a ludicrous premise that he wholly commits to, a commitment that makes acceptability of messy overtness. His offbeat and unpredictable extravaganzas can yield falters, but it’s the small trade-off for the twisted exuberance Bong spins off at us any given moment. Indeed, for all this praise, I’d possibly place Snowpiercer at the bottom of his work so far, which should say something about just how enamored of this man I am. If you lift up its unsubtle outer shell, it’s a story with surprisingly dense ideas, and perhaps within is more unsubtlety, and within that…. well you get what I mean.
It’s the Little Things:
– I’ve said it before, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker working today that I admire or revere more. I’m a Bong completest (not hard with only 5 films) and have read the only book written on his work. His films, without fail, make me feel invigorated and uncommonly (even for me) engaged with cinema (and within that, genre film) as a medium. I spent most of Snowpiercer either beaming at the screen, laughing at the screen, or in awe of the screen.
– I don’t think Gilliam (John Hurt) was in cahoots with Wilford. Just my take.
– The only time, that I can see, the camera move from right to left is when Curtis makes a big move toward Mason.
– So Wilford is basically kind of like a variation of Cristoff from The Truman Show. Except making eggs in a bathrobe casual.
– Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung starring in a badass father-daughter franchise. Someone make this happen.
– Snowpiercer is so quotable, the idea of quotable films are sort of a rarity today. Mean Girls. What the fuck else is there? “I learned babies taste best”, “Be a shoe”, etc.
– I haven’t even talked about the performances. Song Kang-ho (who has more star presence than everyone and their families) forever and ever and ever and ever; obviously. He and Joaquin Phoenix are my two favorite living actors. And now I just want Tilda Swinton and Bong to collaborate again because the two are so in sync re: their twisted sensibilities that it’s a match made in heaven.
– So I don’t know exactly what Weinstein’s cuts were going to be, but I have a feeling it would have been a lot of the humor beats. Which is so sad because I feel like the culture at large is so allergic to risks in tone and having multiple planes of atmosphere. I realize there’s a lot of current pop culture bashing in this review, but I honestly think Snowpiercer is indicative of something that is lacking in big budget fare today.