Sunday, June 29, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013) Film Review

There are those moments when the global political climate has become so polarized that film become something of a commenting agent on the nature of social balance, often to the detriment of actual substance and/provocation. In recent years, this has come in the form of numerous big budget offerings such as The Dark Knight Rises(2012), The Hunger Games(2012), and Tom Hooper's Les Miserables (also 2012). Films flirting with ideas of revolution, often to middling, and often pandering results that speak to a more established worldview. Which is why with great joy and relief that Bong Joon-ho's first western-style feature ranks amongst the very best of its kind. And I say this understanding just how troubling such an opinion could be. But as it stands, SNOWPIERCER does for modern allegorical science fiction what it did for many of the best during the strife-ridden 1970s. A wild, weird fever poem that comes out of the gates swinging with heavy rusted metal in its hands, refusing to let go of the fight.

Right onto the bitter end.

Based upon the graphic novel series, Le Transperceneige by Lob, Rochette, and Legrand, we are thrust headlong into an earth subsumed by a new ice age after an ecological cure-all for global warming backfires. The remains of humanity are now populating a fully self sustaining locomotive which travels the frozen globe over the course of a year. And civilization has resumed its old world habits as the rich and powerful maintain the front, "sacred" engine of the train, while the rest toil in desolation in the rear cars. Seventeen years of this existence has sown seeds of revolution amongst the tail dwellers before, but Curtis Everett (a thoughtful, solid Chris Evans) has a plot in mind which threatens to go further than any previous revolt. But in order to do this, Everett and comrades must enlist the services of former engineer Namgoong Minsoo, a convict with extensive understanding of the train's design and security systems..and his equally loopy daughter, Yona (played by Bong Joon-ho veterans, Song Kang-ho, and Go Ah-Sung, again playing family). The deal is made by way of a shared addiction to a dangerous hallucinogenic drug being distributed to the pair in small doses each gate they open.

After years of living as "freeloaders" to the elites of the locomotive, living off of mysterious food product, and scraping for what amount of comfort and space possible, Curtis and friends undertake what is mythically a bare fisted journey through the ranks of civilization as the powers that be struggle to maintain the long established order. In the guise of the ever prim and frankly, over-the-top Mason (played with great relish by favorite, Tilda Swinton), strikes against the order have normally found themselves sufficiently snuffed out. But alas, Curtis and company prove themselves time and again. Despite this, a breathless game of not-so-magical doorknobs ensues as the rebellion finds that their mythical world is far stranger and terrifying than ever imagined. Even as they move forward car by car, Curtis' hopes to install respected elder, Gilliam (John Hurt) as the engine's new representative are put to great test. This is perhaps a good place as any to admit that the structure of SNOWPIERCER does such a surprising job of fulfilling so many important character beats in careful, but unusual doses as the journey becomes increasingly grueling. And yet, director Bong, cast and crew never let up on the world building and tension throughout the piece. Many often simple rules of storytelling are defied early on, but are rewarded by way of unexpected strokes of personality later. Strokes that are often the earmarks of an auteur ready to play in this larger, more expressive canvas. The director is aware of the dark dream he is carving together here, and it's both an alien, and understandably human one.

Seeking to overthrow the order of the train in hopes of liberating what remains of humankind is at the core of our heroes' mission, but to know what lies at the end entices with an unerring dread. Complicating their journey ahead, are the loss of two young children belonging to two of the would-be rebels(Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner). The story tightens its grip rather aggressively, and plays upon numerous notions of inequality and exploitation, as our characters face frightening enemies, experience sunlight for the first time, not to mention view the world left behind. (where all are told that it is a hellscape, guaranteeing death for those who choose to escape the confines of the train) The painterly nature of the entire film is challenged by such small and confined quarters. And yet somehow each realm represents a new rung on the societal ladder. Considering the original controversy between Joon-ho, and the Weinstein's over the length of the film for US audiences, it is incredibly hard to imagine what would warrant edits. There doesn't seem to be any additional fat on this bone. The thoughts and events on display show little to no reason for additional cuts, and the final film works despite what first time viewers might assume was a rushed opening.

Stories of the train/society's great creator, Wilford (Ed Harris) is hinted at throughout, adding more to the mystery behind the creation and maintenance of this enduring machine. And the road to Wilford is a harsh, costly one that underlies phrases dispersed throughout the film regarding precise balance, controlled numbers, and a need to maintain places in the set hierarchy. The have-nots languish in near Holocaust-like trappings, littered with filth and roaches, and the haves are served regularly to the points of absurdity. The selected few young who are born on the train are served doses of canned education regarding the machine as a savior, and Wilford the unseen, divine benefactor. All within the guise of "natural order". With Mason and her gallery of near fanatical weirdos protecting the train's wealth, we are guests to a surrealist's vision of our daily world, granting us a large scale vision that is effectively nightmarish. The "sacred engine", is what it is due to triumphing over science's greatest gamble, and yet nothing has changed from the human world of the outside. A simulacrum. A continuation. Business as usual.

The element that makes this even more impactful, is in how to consider the director's past works, and his own concerns for his homeland. Bong Joon-ho has used a diverse array of genres to protest what he sees as a grand problem for growing up South Korean. And what he has fashioned here becomes his most direct message to date: the rebels, are Northerners. While the patented, passive aggressive silliness in the latter cars represents the Gagnam Style in all its horrifically plastic glory. And if this is little more than a reductive pet theory, just wait until the final act where motivations are revealed, and don't say that it doesn't sound more than a little familiar. While quite universal in its concerns for the inequities of modern civilization, there are lines here that echo heavily from Korea's tortured past. And to have Hollywood actors deliver these lines is a subversive piece of serendipity that is simply miraculous (not to mention gutting). Also thrilling to witness, is the re-pairing of Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung who continue to play father and daughter brilliantly. Come to think of it, everyone across the board is solid. If there were even one remotely off-key note in the cast, perhaps it is Jamie Bell's Edgar, who feels a little uneven in the handling. 

Joon-ho's poetics start off relatively simplistic throughout the initial thirty minutes, but are textured greatly come the latter half when we finally discover who these entities are, what they represent, and just how paradoxical certain world models truly are. And when matters finally reach their meltdown point in what stands as the boldest denouement of this type of story possible, it becomes easier to see why director Bong chose what he did. Greater themes of trust, and an overall reflexive approach to nature lie at the burning core of SNOWPIERCER, that could generally put off certain viewers. Because at a glance, the film and its cast imply something that so easily comports itself to the typical big budget spectacle. This is no simplistic exploration of bourgeois versus the proles, it is a map of what has led us to this point, troubles and all. And the answers are not pat in any way, and might very well be painful to experience. What we really have here, is a triumph of vision on par with the best fantastical cinema has ever attempted. Not simply concerned with being a balm for the disenfranchised,  SNOWPIERCER, is a glorious splinter in the side of our developed world, and I couldn't be happier that it exists.


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