Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review: "Snowpiercer"

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Runtime: 126 minutes

It's somehow fitting that a film like Snowpiercer opens on the same weekend as the latest Transformers product. Together, the pair represent opposite ends of a spectrum of would-be summer blockbusters, even if Snowpiercer's background and limited release dooms it to be confined mostly to art houses. Yet even though Transformers will rake in obscene amounts of money, it's Snowpiercer that really deserves to pack in the crowds at the theater. Chameleonic South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's English language debut is a resounding success, one that blends pulpy genre tropes with first class filmmaking. Transformers is what Hollywood thinks its blockbusters should be. Snowpiercer is what they should actually strive towards.

Though post-apocalyptic settings are hardly new by this point, Snowpiercer's main set-up certainly moves it far ahead of the pack. The year is 2031, and after a disastrous attempt to counter climate change, Earth has been completely frozen over. Humanity's last few remainders are stranded not in the icy wasteland, but on an advanced train designed to circle the globe in perpetual motion. 

Life on the train is good. That is, if you entered it as a member of the wealthy elite. While the 1% still live lives of comfort and luxury in their numerous train cars, everyone else is crammed into the slum-like tail end. For the downtrodden masses, including Curtis (Chris Evans), the gross inequality needs to be overturned. Unfortunately, that involves finding a way to break through the security forces and steel gates that prevent them from accessing the train's middle and front sections. 

English-language debuts can prove troublesome for foreign-born directors. For Snowpiercer, the results were almost disastrous. Harvey Weinstein fought with Joon-ho over a specific American cut that would be 20 minutes shorter, and include heavy voice-over work to fill in the plot gaps. Thankfully after plenty of sensationalized exchanges between director and distributor/producer, Joon-ho emerged victorious. Whether you take to it or not, it feels instantly like it belongs along side the director's Korean-set films, which run the gamut from police procedural to monster movie. 

Of course, when foreign sensibilities collide with the English language, there can be some bumpiness along the way. The current South Korean New Wave cinema is known not only for mashing genres together, but also tones. Gruesome violence and chaos is often puntuated by humor that ranges from darkly satirical to broad and slapstick. It's an easy thing to lose in translation (despite being a South Korean-American co-production, 95% of the film is in English). 

Yet Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson, in adapting the acclaimed French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige," have retained the former's sense of humor, while still making the whole enterprise quite accessible to average audience members. Joon-ho's style and vision may have been translated, but the finished product shows that such translation can occur without any watering down. 

This becomes apparent the moment Minister Mason (a thoroughly hagged-up Tilda Swinton) first enters the scene. While punishing a disruptive passenger, Mason delivers a monologue about the train's pre-ordained order that is both terrifying in its implications and rich with black humor. Swinton, decked out in fake teeth and ugly prosthetics, has an absolute bawl with the role. The actress turns her native Scottish accent up to 11, not so much chewing the scenery as swallowing it in a single lascivious gulp. It's smartly over-the-top work that inspires just the right amount of laughter and nervous familiarity. Whatever fantastical pseudo-science has been worked into Snowpiercer's world, the echoes of truth presented remain unnerving. 

The rest of the cast are, in their own ways, perfectly in tune with Joon-ho's vision. Yet rather than keep everyone entirely on the same wavelength, the director makes some go broader, while others stay more grounded. Evans trades in his optimisitic, clean-cut Captain America look for a grizzled, haunted stoicism, and proves he's up to the task of carrying more than just super-hero fare. While cast members like Swinton, Bremmer, and Octavia Spencer go bigger, Evans holds the film together without being left as a boring audience cipher. As the casualties mount and the scenario grows grimmer, the actor's more genuine acting style helps Snowpiercer stay firmly on the rails. His interactions with John Hurt and Joon-ho regular Song Kang-ho are a nice counterweight for the film's bigger, flashier moments. 

Yet when Snowpiercer gets to its claustrophobically entertaining stretches, Joon-ho  and his technical collaborators keep everything flowing along beautifully. Hong Kyung-po's cinematography and camera-work creates plenty of space within the various train cars, all of which are brilliantly conceived by Ondrej Nekvasil and Stefan Kovacik. The variation of the train cars, especially as the rebel masses push forward, is not only beautifully varied, but it plays nicely into the film's visual representation of how much the 1% have, while the rest are confined to cramped squalor. 

And when the action sequences arrive, Joon-ho ensures that they pop. His use of slow-motion, particularly in one tableau-like shot of Evans wielding an axe, is put to smart effect. Some action beats are more frenetically shot, and the director knows when to slow things down to really let the viewer drink in everything that's happening in the frame. Marco Beltrami's score, though it lacks any distinctive themes, is a perfect compliment to everything going around, enhancing the atmosphere without drawing too much attention to itself. 

In Snowpiercer, Joon-ho and company have walked on quite the filmmaking tightrope, making the film's success that much more impressive. Snowpiercer provides the sci-fi thrills and bloody violence, yet it also has quite a bit on its mind regarding distribution of wealth, resources, and our treatment of the environment. Films like Memories of Murder and The Host (the monster movie, not the dreadful teen sci-fi romance) have some pointed commentary about South Korean officials. Snowpiercer's target is bigger, and smartly amplified by the occasional glimpses of the outside world; the failure at the top of the food chain to respond to climate change won't be selective in its victims. It may not be subtle, but that doesn't mean the handling of the execution here lacks elegance. 

And with a runtime just over two hours, it's hard to find a moment worth jettisoning. Snowpiercer is a film that knows how to use its time well to truly build up characters and tension, as brief as certain performances are. Editing ensures that the film's set pieces and contemplative moments are carefully paced, allowing neither to drag or throw things out of balance. One could have easily trimmed down a scene involving an elementary school for the wealthy, and their eerily enthusiastic teacher (Alison Pill), but the scene's inclusion only enriches the rest of the story. 

Despite the bleakness of Snowpiercer's message, however, the film never sinks into full blown misery. Joon-ho and Masterson have beautifully merged entertainment and message so that each compliments the other. In a way, Swinton's Mason character is onto something. Balance is key to success. Yet where Mason's idea of balance stems from nonsensical notions of a pre-ordained hierarchy, Bong Joon-ho's idea of balance involves actively working to achieve a much more equitable sense of harmony. Blockbusters don't need to be all razzle dazzle or all overly serious brooding. They can, in fact, take the best of both sides of the coin and merge them into something singular and spectacular. 

Grade: B+/A-

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