Saturday, July 12, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: SNOWPIERCER (2014)

(South Korea - 2013; US release 2014)

Directed by Bong Joon Ho. Written by Bong Joon Ho and Kelly Masterson. Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ko Asung, Alison Pill, Luke Pasqualino, Vlad Ivanov, Adnon Haskovic, Emma Levie, Clark Middleton, Tomas Lemarquis, Paul Lazar, Steve Park, Marcanthonee Jon Reis, Karel Vasely. (R, 126 mins)

The instant cult classic of the summer, the $40 million SNOWPIERCER was released in its native South Korea and the rest of Asia a year ago, where it became a blockbuster hit. It opened in Europe not long after, but its US release hit a roadblock. The Weinstein Company acquired the US distribution rights, but expressed concern over its commercial viability if it was to get a wide release. Harvey Weinstein wanted changes made, demanding the 126-minute running time be cut down to 100 minutes with voiceover exposition added at the beginning and end--in short, the same demands he made on Wong Kar Wai's THE GRANDMASTER. SNOWPIERCER director Bong Joon Ho (MEMORIES OF MURDER, THE HOST), making his (for the most part) English-language debut, refused to comply. Weinstein made the changes anyway and focus-grouped both cuts of the film to test audiences. When Bong's version got a better response, Weinstein agreed to release the director's cut, but demoted the film to Radius/TWC, the company's B-movie/genre outfit, presumably for VOD and a brief theatrical run. Word of the film's purported burial spread online and that, coupled with overwhelmingly positive critical reviews, the fact that it was a huge hit overseas, and a knockout US trailer, led to a groundswell of interest from North American audiences who wanted to see the film. It opened on eight screens two weeks ago, expanding to 250 last week, and now it's on VOD in what the Weinstein Company is spinning as a "bold new distribution platform," or some such industry jargon. Maybe it was planned all along, the same way Paramount released PARANORMAL ACTIVITY only because we "demanded" it, or maybe Weinstein's just being a bullying dick, but regardless, SNOWPIERCER is finally being made accessible stateside.

First off, let's not kid ourselves: there's no way this was going to play as a wide-release summer blockbuster, even if Bong relented and cut 26 minutes out of it. Length is not the issue in terms of commercial viability, especially when TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION runs nearly three hours. No, SNOWPIERCER is just a strange film. It exists in that place that precious few films can thrive, especially in today's cinematic culture: the tiny space between the multiplex and the arthouse. There's enough action to please the blockbuster crowd, and SNOWPIERCER has its own singularly unique vision and imagination. But it hammers its points so hard that its overtly aggressive lack of subtlety almost becomes comical at times.  Of course, it's intentionally heavy-handed in its mission and its points are valid, but this kind of metaphorical narrative can spill over into self-parody if it's not handled the right way. Bong never loses control of the story, but it goes in directions that will fly just fine in the art house but probably elicit eye-rolling and dismissive snickers in a packed multiplex. That's not a judgment on the intelligence of a movie audience--indeed, SNOWPIERCER, while enormously entertaining and a film I'll revisit frequently, isn't quite as smart or deep as it thinks it is--it's just an observation on a distributor understanding moviegoer expectations and knowing its target audience. Releasing this nationwide on 3000 screens would've resulted in a box-office flop. By letting word-of-mouth spread, SNOWPIERCER has the potential to gain momentum and become something we don't see much of anymore: a genuine sleeper hit.

In the year 2014, the governments of the world worked together to disperse a cooling agent called CW-7 into Earth's atmosphere as a way to combat escalating temperatures caused by global warming. It worked a little too well, freezing the planet and rendering humanity extinct. The relatively few survivors are corralled onto The Rattling Ark, an impossibly-long supertrain on an equally impossible track that circles the entire planet over the course of a year. Cut to 2031, and the Rattling Ark is a high-speed symbol of the world's economic and social structure: it churns in perpetuity, with its own ecosystem and food sources, gathering water from the snow it filters from the exterior of the train, and seemingly self-propelled so long as everyone and everything are in their right place.  Order must be kept. The privileged live in comfort toward the front of the train, the underclass "freeloaders" are herded in the rear in horrific living conditions  The front dine on sushi, they frequent salons, and their children attend school, the rear subsist on gelatinous "protein bars" made of ground-up insects and vermin and are routinely beaten and subjugated by ruthless, militarized security officials. The denizens of the tail, led by Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the wise Gilliam (John Hurt) are plotting a takeover of the train to make it to the front and gain control of "The Sacred Engine."  Mason (Tilda Swinton) is the representative of the Rattling Ark's engineer, the revered Wilford the Benevolent (Ed Harris), the limitlessly wealthy magnate who designed the train and the global track and, as she often reminds those in the tail, was kind enough to allow them to live. Mason and her goonish guards try to quash the uprising but it backfires, and Curtis and company take Mason hostage and start moving up car by car with the help of Namgoong (Bong regular Song Kang Ho), who's been held in the prisoner car with his daughter Yona (Ko Asung, who also played Song's daughter in THE HOST).  Both are addicted to a drug called Kronole, which Curtis uses to bribe Nangoong into aiding their cause. Nangoong helped design the lock system on the train and knows how to get through each doors leading to each car, but has his own idea about what to do when they finally get to the front.

Essentially a REVOLT ON THE DYSTOPIAN EXPRESS or THE SACRED ENGINE THAT COULD, if you will, SNOWPIERCER is pretty blunt in its politics:  the one-percenters rule the world and will do what they have to do maintain order and keep everyone in their place (it's certainly no accident that there's no middle-class on the Rattling Ark). It's not subtle in its messaging, which is rather obvious and ham-fisted to the point that your enjoyment of the film is probably predicated on where you stand on the political spectrum. Needless to say, this is probably not a film that's going to play well with the Fox News crowd (SPOILER ALERT: Swinton's Mason is not the hero). SNOWPIERCER's strengths lie the sheer audacity of its story and its presentation, incorporating elements of class struggle, post-apocalyptic nightmare, and dark humor bordering on absurdism. It's equal parts Terry Gilliam (as in Hurt's character's surname), Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, Stanley Kubrick, Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Luis Bunuel. It may not be the best film of the summer, but you won't find one that's more ambitious, visionary, and just plain odd.

Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, SNOWPIERCER was scripted by Bong and Kelly Masterson (BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD). The cast is excellent across the board, headed by a never-better Evans, who gets solid support from Hurt, Bell, Song, Ko, and Octavia Spencer as a mother whose son is taken to the front of the train for undisclosed reasons after Wilford the Benevolent's sinister attack dog Claude (Emma Levie) sizes him up with a measuring tape and has him taken away. As good as everyone is, they all take a backseat to an absolutely brilliant performance by Swinton, who's unforgettable as the ruthless Mason. Looking like a political cartoonist's mean-spirited caricature of Margaret Thatcher with a vocal impression to match and a case of the crazy eyes to rival Eva Green in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, Swinton owns SNOWPIERCER whenever she's onscreen (though honorable mention must go to Alison Pill as a deranged teacher indoctrinating the children with the philosophy of Wilford). Whether she's coldly reciting the rules of the train ("Everyone in their place!") or gleefully awaiting the outcome of a clash between the rear dwellers and her officers ("Precisely 74% of you shall die...this is going to be good!") or hospitably offering sushi after she's been taken prisoner, Swinton delivers a master class in scene stealing, and in a just world, both she and Mason's dentures would be duking it out for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

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