aka 설국열차 aka Seolgugyeolcha
Story by Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson
Based on Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
2013 saw three of the best directors of Korea produce English-language films. First was Kim Ji-woon with The Last Stand, an entertaining but forgettable Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle. Next was Park Chan-wook and Stoker, an amazing coming of age story covered in Hitchcock influences. The finale was Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which would have been an amazing capstone. Unfortunately, history repeated itself in the Weinsteins ruining everything, delaying the film and demanding a bunch of cuts and added narration. After a bunch of arguing, Snowpiercer got a limited run uncut in America, but by that time it had already hit BluRay in several foreign markets.
Having now seen the film, I have no idea exactly what would have been cut, as most of it was essential. Almost the entire film is in English, so this isn’t a case of people that would be turned off by subtitles. The only thing I could think of was to alter the film fundamentally to try to remove some of the class warfare aspects, which would only serve to protect the upper class and ruin the film by eliminating most of the motivation to revolt. The delay probably cost Snowpiercer a huge percentage of its audience, which will in turn be used as more evidence that films like this just don’t work as releases and lead to less good films getting releases. I hate to be pessimistic, but this has happened before and will happen again.
Shelving this film was all bunk because Snowpiercer is damn amazing. It’s better than Stoker, and Stoker was one of my favorite films from 2013. Not only is it a fun science fiction adventure with a unique premise, but it deals with the struggle of class inequality and revolutions against tyrannical governments. As the world lies frozen due to adverse effects from attempts to combat global warming, the only life left is on the unstoppable train known as Snowpiercer, which travels the world on an endless loop journey once every year. It has now been 16 years since the world froze, and things on the train aren’t very well.
Snowpiercer borrows a lot from/is very similar to The Hunger Games. Everyone is put in their respective places on the train and are forced to stay there. The poor huddled masses lie in the least-desired plot, and the weirdly-dressed rich assemble them together to cull children for their own nefarious purposes. This order is enforced by an army of jack-booted thugs, while the representative from the front of the train lectures the masses of their proper place. Like the books, food is an important issue, the tail end inhabitants eat only protein bars – gelatinous slabs – provided by the front, while the upper class passengers enjoy real food and even occasional sushi.
Both films come from sources that were created independently from each other, so any theft on purpose is very unlikely. But it’s eerie how easy it is to create the same themes of excess and control in a dystopian future, and how eerily familiar those things are to modern life. Hm…..
While Wilford (Ed Harris) stays in the engine and the rich stay in the front of the train, the poor and desperate passengers who got a ride as the world was ending are stuck in the back. Curtis Everett (Chris Evens) is a leader (who doesn’t want to be called a leader) in the steerage section at the back of the train, lying in wait for a chance to strike against the forces from the front of the train. After some planning and a particularly bad incident where two young children are taken away to the front of the way with no explanation (and their parents beaten/disfigured), the revolution is on.
The rebels need the help of a security expert who designed all the locks, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), who was locked away for being addicted to a hallucinogenic engine byproduct called Kronol. Namgoon agrees to help, but only if he and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) are supplied with Kronol for each door opened. Thus the journey to the front begins, and we see how the train works and is divided, and how brutally those in power which to keep things at the status quo.
As seen in the propaganda video shown in the school car, Wilford was interested in trains from an early age, obsessing with laying things out in their proper place. The obsession with things in their proper place grew as the rest of the world died and the train became the only place left, with Wilford in absolute control. Over time, the passengers in the front have become whipped up into a zealot frenzy to protect their positions. Kids are taught from an early age that the engine is sacred and Wilford is divine. They will obey his every command, while he largely ignores them.
Once we get to the cars closer to the front, we see much of the upper class ultimately living in either a drug-fueled rave or a drug-fueled Kronol (read: opium) den orgy. The leader, the mythical Wilford, lives in isolation in his engine room, rarely leaving or even speaking to the rest of the train.
Snowpiercer has some clever world building. Hymnal songs about Wilford, a child asking “Anything in the whole wide train?”, the rich passengers strung out on the drug Kronol. There is a mythology built up because the world is changed and a new world develops a new culture. That the culture is ultimately corrupted and damaging to most is a shame, but then not that unusual from many cultures now on Earth.
My favorite moment in the film is Tanya (Octavia Spencer) cracking her egg open on the head of the annoying blond girl straight out of the girl scout character from The Addams Family movie. But the speech at the last door by Chris Evans was also amazing. Despite all the action and the weird train culture, the speeches the characters give while dictating out their philosophies elevate things from a SyFy flick to a science fiction classic. Whether it’s Tilda Swinton ranting about shoes before putting one on someone’s head, or John Hurt advising Chris Evans while dismissing himself as a leader by saying he’s a shadow of his former shadow, or Wilford calmly explaining his horrid philosophy that’s doomed the train to constant disruptions (while still making sense in a twisted way), performances are off the charts good.
Rated 10/10 (soon seen on a milk carton, translator, getting high, not a hat, symbolism, goon squad, would make cookies with real girl scouts, a couple of revolutions ago, a non-Sonic egg man, upper class passenger)
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