Snowpiercer (South Korea, 2013)

MV5BMTQ3NzA1MTY3MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzE2Mzg5MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Directed by: Bong Joon-ho. It’s official: I’m in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future month. I’m going to veer away from the desert-centric Australian films for a bit and take a look at this one, which is a pretty remarkable and head-turning little movie. This is a nominally South Korean movie, with a Korean director and a Korean co-lead (Song Kang-ho from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), but also some big time Hollywood Americans (Chris Evans and Ed Harris), and some great Brits (John Hurt, whose presence always bumps up a movie’s profile in my books, Ewen Bremner, who was unrecognizable to me, but who had a great supporting role, and Tilda Swinton, who steals the fucking film!). So, yes, let’s get all the great acting out of the way, because there was a lot of great acting in this movie. I’m still not convinced that Chris Evans is a great actor, but at least this movie demonstrates that he’s capable of doing more interesting things than Captain America and Fantastic Four (it’s good to aim high), and really with Tilda Swinton doing her best warped-future-comicbook-Thatcher impression, the entire movie is 100% more legit. Now, as to the actual film itself, I’m still not sure. I initially really enjoyed it, it’s a gripping film, a nice simple parable about a microcosm-analogy-metaphor-allegory future of a train segmented by very harsh and obvious social classes, following the rebel group at the back of the train as they fight their way to the front of the train, learning a lot about the decadence of the upper classes, and ultimately learning (as all of these “smart” modern films do) a shattering truth that compels you to watch the whole thing over again with your new knowledge giving a different reading to the preceding events. It’s a trick as old as Psycho, or closer to this movie, Planet of the Apes, but this one isn’t as jarring as, say Memento. And for that matter, the dystopian Marxist parable comes off in a unique way from The Matrix or Hunger Games, but it isn’t any more subtle (and those ones are not known for their subtlety either). And I was willing to set aside all of that because, frankly, it was so jarring to see a major Hollywood movie concern itself with such an overtly class-conscious theme that I was willing to take it as the giant, blundering, nail on the head that it was. And in between the unsubtle set up and the unsubtle climax, there was a lot of neat, fun, horrifying and bizarre distractions, a lot of heartbreak, injustice, revelations, and eye candy to keep me distracted from how over the top and inconsistent it was. The entire sequence with the balaclava-masked goons with their eyes obscured, their savage grins showing, and wielding axes and hatchets, the entire brutal, bloody axe fight in closed quarters that follows, and the horrifying blackout in the tunnel…all that shit still gives me shivers. This is a very visceral film, and I applaud the film for presenting this far-fetched, fabular, sci-fi fake world with such convincing gritty real-ness (and due to its claustrophobic setting, this sci-fi dystopia feels much more up-close and uncomfortable than that other hallmark of sci-fi dystoptianism, Blade Runner).  Its “realness”, though, is achieved by making its entire story feel like it’s being viewed through a Terry Gilliam fish-bulb wide angle lens, even though the film doesn’t use that effect once. It’s the sound effects of the gross, floppy, protein bars (that are actually cockroach bars), and the sound of Tilda Swinton unnecessarily removing her false teeth in that one close up, with that weird expression on her inscrutable face. This train world is a very specific, meticulously drawn out, bizarre landscape, and I appreciate that. So, yes, there are a lot of memorable and effecting things about this film, but the whole plot-reversal thing at the end, meant to be a big dramatic cynical think-piece on class culture…I don’t know. I feel like all of the good stuff is undermined by all of the bad stuff: the last 20 minutes kind of fall apart from sloppy plotting, needless fight sequences, that Peter Gabriel-looking bodyguard suddenly coming back to life to come fight Song Kang-ho for some reason, and the group of angry ravers baying for blood in a stupid mass of contrived narrative tension to contrast with the dialogue-based climax in the head train car with Ed Harris. And then, all of that, the big explosion, the big derailment, which surely kills lots of innocent people on the train, etc, all that for what? So that the clairvoyant girl and the little kid can trudge out to the snow and look at a CGI polar bear. We’re supposed to take it as an ambiguous ending, to maintain the film’s ambiguity cred, but really, it’s a typical Hollywood ending. Everything’s going to be ooooookay. If there was no CGI polar bear, just a desolate wasteland, the question would be: “Okay, they’re off the train, now what? How do they survive in this desolate wasteland where nothing has grown for 20 years? They’re basically fucked.” And that would be a pretty great ending, the girl and the kid giving each other some kind of muted glance like Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross at the end of The Graduate. “Now what?” Black out, roll credits, great. But no, you need some hope, something uplifting, and that’s disappointing from a film that nominally sets out to do something more, to be a striking, unique, parable about class dynamics and a morality tale about how human beings are ultimately torn apart by their class dynamics, how class dynamics sacrifice the individual for the idea. Ed Harris is evil because he sacrifices some people’s personal liberty for the good of the whole, an imagined altruistic equilibrium that’s actually just egotistic control over people. But to Chris Evans and his movement, all of the wanton violence leading up to and including the ultimate destruction of the train and everyone on it, all of that shit is the same thing: sacrificing individuals for the higher ideal that it’s not okay to sacrifice individuals for a higher ideal. So all of that, followed by the CGI polar bear, leaves me kind of scratching my head on what was in many ways an enjoyable movie. Plus, as my viewing partner pointed out, the narrative would have been better served by thinking its world through a touch better: the shot of Ed Harris eating a steak at the end, as a sign of his decadence, would have been more effective if it had been accounted for, vis a simple shot of the lower classes taking care of and living with cows in the rear of the train (instead of whatever meaningless faux-industrial labour they were depicted as actually doing—I mean, what are those guys even doing back there?), and a shot of some meat processing plants or something in the middle cars, culminating in Ed Harris eating a steak at the front car. If this is supposed to be a social consciousness movie, it might show a little bit of something revealing about our own food chain and how A magically turns into X through a convoluted process of exploitation, inhumanity, waste of resource, etc, all for the momentary decadent enjoyment by one privileged person. But instead…CGI polar bear. I’ll add that to my list of bizarre uses of CGI animals in modern film, alongside the metaphorical deer in Michael Clayton, and the talking fox in Antichrist. Of those, this polar bear is a distant third.

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2 responses to “Snowpiercer (South Korea, 2013)

  1. Pingback: Filth (UK, 2013) | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

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