Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Films of Bong Joon-ho: Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer (2013) 
Directed by: Joon-ho Bong.
Written by: Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson based on the book by Jacques Lob & Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette.
Starring: Chris Evans (Curtis), Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo), Ed Harris (Wilford), John Hurt (Gilliam), Tilda Swinton (Mason), Jamie Bell (Edgar), Octavia Spencer (Tanya), Ewen Bremner (Andrew), Ko Asung (Yona), Alison Pill (Teacher), Luke Pasqualino (Grey), Vlad Ivanov (Franco the Elder), Adnan Haskovic (Franco the Younger), Emma Levie (Claude), Steve Park (Fuyu), Marcanthonee Reis (Tim), Paul Lazar (Paul), Tómas Lemarquis (Egg-Head), Robert Russell (Gerald), Magda Weigertová (Doris), Ana Braun (Ylfa), Tyler John Williams (Young Wilford), Luna Sophia Bar-Cohen (Magdalena), Sean Connor Renwick (Sergio), Karel Veselý (Andy), Sung-taek Park (Chan). 
Watching Snowpiercer for the first time since seeing it in theaters back in 2013, I was once again struck by just how magnificently directed this film is. After perhaps too talky a first act – too much setup – the film is basically one thrilling set piece after another – one achievement in art direction, cinematography and action choreography after another, all handled brilliantly. And then the ending comes, and I cannot help but feel let down – because this movie that seems that perhaps its pushing for something wholly unique, ends up just not quite being able to get there. It’s still a thrilling achievement – an example of how to do a large scale, international co-production, action blockbuster, and how to do it well. I just wish the film had pushed itself a little harder in the end.
The basic premise of Snowpiercer is simple (which is why the setup goes on too long) – 17-years ago, humanity messed everything up, and basically created a new ice age. The only people who were able to survive are the ones who were able to board a massive train, designed by Wilford (Ed Harris), which has been in constant motion, circumnavigating the globe at the rate of one time per year ever since. The people at the front of the train were the rich and powerful – and they continue to live in luxury. The people at the back of the train were poor, and continue to be just cogs in the machine – used for manual, dirty labor, and subsisting on black gelatin rectangles of “protein bars”. Then the front people come and take two children from the back – for some undisclosed purpose – and those at the back have finally had enough. Led by Curtis (Chris Evans) they stage an uprising, and start to take back the train one car at a time.
The train itself really is a stunning feat of production design – several in fact, because each and every car is completely different than the one that came before it, and often they are stunning to look at (my favorite is probably the fish car – but there are many to choose from). The cinematography by Kyung-pyo Hong is also quite stunning – the color palette changes as they make their way through the cars, and the action camera work is brilliant – as Bong and company let most of the scenes play out in longer takes, so you get a sense of what is happening. All of this is set to the pulsating score of Marco Beltrami – which keeps the movie humming along.
In an action movie like this, character development is often sacrificed – and for the most part, that happens here as well. Evans is playing the square jawed hero he already was in Captain America, and he does that very well. The film tries to give him a tragic backstory – and a monologue to tell said backstory – buts it a little too on the nose. The film does reunite father and daughter from The Hose with Kang-ho Song and Ko Asung, playing again, father and daughter – and it works, although I’m not quite sure I buy the various reveals throughout the movie about them that the film tries to spring. The best of the major performances in by Tilda Swinton as the representative from the front who has to deal with the revolution in the back – and is eventually taken hostage. It’s one of those demented Swinton performances, where a lesser actress would simple rely on the heavy makeup (brilliantly done) – but which Swinton takes, and runs with it in bizarre, memorable ways. Out of all the smaller performance, Allison Pill’s one scene wonder as a very chipper teacher is brilliant.
Watching it this second time though, I was struck by the fact that no matter how brilliantly made Snowpiercer is – and it is on every level – it just isn’t as interesting on a narrative or character level – or even a thematic one. It’s a rather typical dystopian future narrative, right down to the final reveals. Yes, everything works – the film moves rather quickly for an action movie that runs over two-hours (although, it is a movie that could probably stand to lose 20 minutes or so). This time through though, I wanted more depth to go along with the spectacle – which still delivers. – and shows what a brilliant director Bong is. I just wanted a little bit more from the film.

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