Bong Joon-Ho’s American debut was always going to be an interesting spectacle, both in terms of the graphic novel he was taking the source material from (Le Transperceneige), and from the point of view of how well his particularly niched, culturally embedded South Korean directorial style would transfer to a western audience. Renowned for juxtaposing odd moments of (almost) slapstick humour, and dichotomously transitioning these moments with heavily serious natured themes, there is an accustomed need to comprehend the balance between these — sometimes polar-opposite – and randomly placed emotional aspects for the uninitiated. It is a great touch that demands finesse, but it is far more culturally specific to Joon-Ho’s home turf. This is very evident in Bong Joon-Ho’s more serious natured and critically acclaimed films such as Memories of Murder and his monster movie The Host (both starring the amazing Song Kang-Ho).
So, to cut a long story short–randomly placed slapstick, and a two-hour film might just be too long for somebody who is used to sitting watching a fast paced ninety-minute film. Consequently, Harvey Weinstein’s issues about the pacing of Snowpiercer is widely due to the fact that the film is as much a drama as it is an action packed dystopian piece of science fiction. Yes, there is action and suspense–but there is more to the film and the trepidation lies at the presumptions that some western audiences just can’t get used to the pacing of these kinds of films. It is typically normal for a South Korean film to come in at the two-hour mark – this can be the troubling aspect of bidding at film festivals based on scripts and snippets of film – just as Harvey Weinstein knows all too well. In a way, Weinstein wanted an action-packed sci-fi rumpus with a narrative text at the beginning and the end to explain the movie in a nutshell. It is the same problem that Ridley Scott had with Blade Runner back in its crazy post-production days when the studio didn’t know what it was that they had, never mind how to sell it.
Aside from all the political gumph in the background, the film is a triumphant success with beautiful direction and meticulously planned out shots. Boon Joon-Ho has perfected every scene; and there are some remarkably ambivalent scenes that mix both visceral brutality and beautiful melancholy. One scene in particular almost matches Park Chan-Wook’s now classic corridor scene in Oldboy in terms of the skillful execution and the intensely choreographed weaponry assault. Needless to say, the film looks great and the cinematography is mesmerisingly captive, going from the grim of the rear carriages to the gradual iridescent vibrancy of the front carriages, as they are explored one-by-one.
Topically Bong Joon-Ho offers a microcosmic look at the hierarchical class system that prevails in today’s society. Each carriage has an allegorical purpose from the rear of the train to the front; and from start to end what is offered is the small-scale depiction of society from its most basic proletariat level, to the bourgeoisie, right up to the powerful elite; the capitalists if you will; consecutively in that order. Thusly, Bong Joon-Ho takes the viewer on a journey of incrementing injustices, from the simple beginnings of life in terms of the evolution of civilization, science, education, quality of life – to the downfall of living in excess, partaking in needless hedonism as a byproduct of boredom from having it all, leading to squandering extravagance – to the eventual expiration of any morale or purpose of being. The film covers the ubiquitous social stratification that characteristically defines the individual members that comprise ‘that’ society; organising people by levels, or strata, on a variety of dimensions and essentially synonymising these significations cleverly within each of the carriages on the Snowpiercer.
The ensemble cast is simply outstanding with John Hurt, Tilda Swindon, Jamie Bell, Ewen Bremner, Ed Harris and Octavia Spencer all playing integral roles with absolute conviction. However, the most important characters in the film steal the show with Song Kang-ho (who never fails to impress), Ko Ah-sung and Chris Evans all exceptional in their roles. Evans has really upped his game in the acting department and there are some great moments between him and Song Kang-ho in which some of the most pivotal parts in the film are explored with their shared dialogue.
Political and economic systems come and go, races are socially constructed and deconstructed, empires rise and fall, cultural traditions evolve and change; but the common factor through all of these myriad expressions of human social organisation is socio-economic class. This cinematic experience allows the viewer to look at – and question – the cultural and social phenomena of the class system. To distill those problems which have constantly plagued civilisations for thousands of years. Some might debate the conclusion of the film, which is indicative of the need to re-watch, pay closer attention and perhaps think of it as more of a means to an end, rather than an end to a means.
8 out of 10 stars