With Harvey Weinstein’s scissors currently swinging over the print of Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer like the blade from The Pit And The Pendulum, this review is of the director’s cut that has been shown in non-English-speaking territories and, of course, we can’t guarantee that whatever version of the film sees the light of day over here will measure up.
The conflict between director and distributor has been well publicised, with Weinstein reportedly looking to trim 20 minutes from the two-hour running-time of Bong Joon-Ho’s cut. Having seen it, we wouldn’t take out a single frame.
17 years ago, Earth was frozen after a failed attempt to stop global warming. The last remnants of humanity live on an enormous train making a never-ending global circuit. The wealthy upper classes live in luxury in the front, while the poor live in squalor and desperation in the back. Revolution is brewing, led by Curtis (Chris Evans), but they must free imprisoned security expert Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-Ho). Their violent uprising takes their oppressors by surprise, but the further they get, the more horrifying truths they uncover.
Much like his executive producer Park Chan-Wook’s excellent Stoker, Bong Joon-Ho has delivered an English-language debut that retains every note of his authorial voice. Perhaps that’s what has given Weinstein pause. Based on the French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is an extremely thrilling thriller, to be sure, but it’s very, very funny and very, very odd. It’s an allegory with a personality, a bleak vision with a sense of humour, an action movie with an unsparing darkness.
One of the many elements that made Bong’s tragic monster movie The Host so effective was the fact that it ignored any perceived restrictions enforced by its genre. Snowpiercer is similarly difficult to categorise, with heart, action, humour and despair mingling in equal measure to create something special.
The opening half hour is all about forward momentum, in which timing and the element of surprise are vital. It’s essentially a prison break film, with Tilda Swinton’s toothy Mason the vile, unfeeling warden. Messages are hidden in gelatinous protein bars and the point of no return grows ever nearer as the rich take what they want and punish any resistance. The claustrophobia of the rear carriages is superbly rendered; a shanty town in an elongated box with its inhabitants piled on top of each other.
Snowpiercer’s political and social allegories are never too far from the surface, but their overbearing presence is balanced by wit and resonance. For example, it’s difficult not to think of a certain milk-snatcher as Mason delivers a splenetic monologue on the importance of knowing your place if society is to function, barking “So it is!” Bong moves us through the train at the same pace as the rebels and the highly detailed dystopia, not to mention the combination of humour and despair, recalls the best work of Terry Gilliam. The upper classes worship the train and its creator Wilford (Ed Harris) with a religious fervour, while each member of the security forces that we meet has their own little idiosyncracies.
Once the plan is set in motion, Bong’s grip on his audience only grows tighter. Each carriage offers new surprises and new dangers, leading to some startling tonal shifts. There’s a beautifully staged fight sequence near the halfway point that is absolutely thrilling, in part because it’s so unclear as to what kind of reaction Bong wants to provoke. As the film goes on, the answer becomes clear: as many as he can. Violence is clumsy, shocking and unexpected, and its consequences resonate.
Despite the film’s deliberate eccentricity, it never loses its emotional connection. This is in large part due to the superb international cast. Evans’ quiet intensity provides a strong anchor, allowing the character actors surrounding him to embrace the different tones. Essentially, the human spirit is found in the rear carriages, as John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer each deliver a combination of gravitas, warmth and humour.
Following excellent performances in Only Lovers Left Alive and The Zero Theorem, Swinton dominates large swathes of Snowpiercer with a marvellously gruesome turn. With medal-adorned outfits, milk-bottle glasses and huge false teeth, Mason is an unforgettable, monstrous creation who will do anything to survive and Swinton is brilliant. Veteran scene-stealers Ewen Bremner and Alison Pill both leave a lasting impression, but fans of Bong’s previous work will be pleased to hear that Song and his The Host co-star Ko Ah-Sung, who play the drug-addled Namgoong and his equally drug-addled daughter Yona respectively, make away with the film. They work perfectly together as the group’s wild card element, adding humour and warmth when the film needs it most.
Although we would emphasise that nothing should be cut, there’s a misstep or two as Snowpiercer nears its conclusion as the inevitable confrontation and explanation feel just a little clunky. These are minor quibbles, however, given that it functions so well on so many different levels.
Bong Joon-Ho has created a film that is marvellously inventive, gripping, witty and heartfelt. It’s the kind of film that we’re used to remarking will probably get a remake that misses the point, but it looks like it’s going to get cut instead. Snowpiercer is fantastic and it deserves to be seen as its director intended.