ContactSales: CJ Entertainment, Seoul (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Theatrical release: South Korea, 1 Aug 2013.
Presented by CJ Entertainment (SK), in association with Urin Investment Partners. Produced by Moho Films (SK), Opus Pictures (SK). Executive producer: Miky Lee. Producers: Jeong Tae-seong, Steven Nam, Park Chan-wook, Lee Tae-hun.
Script: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson. Story: Bong Joon-ho. Manga: Jean-Marc Rochette (drawing), Jacques Lob (story), Benjamin Legrand (story) (Le Transperceneige, three parts, 1984-2000). Photography: Alex Hong. Editing: Steve M. Choe. Music: Marco Beltrami. Production design: Ondřej Nekvasil. Art direction: Štefan Kováčik. Costume design: Catherine George. Sound: Mark Holding, Dave Whitehead. Action: Julian Spencer. Special effects: Pavel Sagner. Visual effects: Eric Durst (ScanlineVFX).
Cast: Chris Evans (Curtis Everett), Song Gang-ho (Nam-gung Min-su), Tilda Swinton (Minister Mason), Jamie Bell (Edgar), John Hurt (Gilliam), Ed Harris (Wilford), Octavia Spencer (Tanya), Ewen Bremner (Andrew), Go A-seong (Yo-na), Alison Pill (teacher), Vlad Ivanov (Franco the Elder), Luke Pasqualino (Grey), Clark Middleton (painter), Tomas Lemarquis (Egg-head), Griffin Seymour (boy in classroom), Steve Park (Fuyu), Adnan Haskovic (Franco the Younger), Paul Lazar (Paul), Sean Connor Renwick (Sergio), Emma Levie (Claude).
Futuristic action drama
2013, colour, 1.85:1, 126 mins
Directed by Bong Joon-ho (봉준호 | 奉俊昊)
By Derek Elley
Sun, 02 February 2014, 13:30 PM (HKT)
Hugely disappointing diversion into futuristic action by South Korea's Bong Joon-ho. Largely Asian and genre events.
Planet Earth, 2031. After a failed experiment to halt global warming in the summer of 2014, Earth has been plunged into another ice age. The only survivors live on Snowpiercer, a super-long "Train of Life" built by US business tycoon Wilford (Ed Harris) which has been circling the globe non-stop for 17 years on a 438,000-kilometre track made up of various countries' rail networks. The train has its own self-sustaining engine, eco-system, food production and social stratification. The poorest are crowded together in the rear carriages, surviving on black flubby "protein blocks" provided by the train's armed guards, while the elite live in the front carriages, enjoying the luxuries of life. Another revolution is brewing in the rear of the train, masterminded by the aged Gilliam (John Hurt) and led by American Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) and his Irish sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell). The revolutionaries receive cryptic messages in the protein blocks from an anonymous source. When they learn that Korean security expert Nam-gung Min-su (Song Gang-ho), who designed the door-locking system, is being held in the prison section, they decide to break out and work their way to the front of the train to confront Wilford and seize control of the engine. Nam-gung Min-su is rescued but only agrees to help them if they bring along his 17-year-old, "train-baby" daughter Yo-na (Go A-seong) and provide them both with uncut Kronole, a hallucinogenic drug made from industrial waste to which they're both addicted. Gradually, the revolutionaries battle their way up the train, en route capturing Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), who is in charge of keeping order and ensuring everyone remains in their allotted place.
Writer-director BONG Joon-ho 봉준호 | 奉俊昊, who's made at least two of South Korea's most inventive genre-spins — the superb crime drama Memories of Murder 살인의 추억 (2003) and offbeat monster movie The Host 괴물 (2006) — bites off way more than he chew with his fifth and most ambitious production, the English-language sci-fi drama Snowpiercer 설국열차. Adapted from the three-part French manga Le Transperceneige (1984-2000), about a revolution on board a self-sustaining express train circling the globe with the last survivors of humanity on board, the movie is a bleak, cold artefact devoid of involving human drama and a long, repetitive haul over two hours. Bong shows no natural empathy with the world of futuristic manga nor any gift for the kind of extreme stylisation (à la Terry Gilliam, Marc Caro/Jean-Pierre Jeunet or David Lynch) that could make the preposterous story work on screen. Most signally, the film fails in what should be its primary task — creating a convincing universe of its own in which the drama can take place.
Bong's only other flirtation with sci-fi, The Host, worked because it basically wasn't a regular monster movie, more a blackly comic character-driven one which played with the genre as much as it worked within its rules. His other three films, including the quirky, low-budget debut Barking Dogs Never Bite 플란다스의 개 (2000) and creepy smalltown psychodrama Mother 마더 (2009), have all been strongly atmospheric and character-based — two adjectives that hardly apply to Snowpiercer. One of three productions — along with PARK Chan-wook 박찬욱 | 朴贊郁's gothic drama Stoker (2012), with Nicole KIDMAN, and KIM Jee-woon 김지운 | 金知雲's shoot-'em-up The Last Stand, with Arnold SCHWARZENEGGER — that were meant to establish a triumphant South Korean bridgehead into English-speaking cinema, Snowpiercer carried the biggest hopes but actually ended up premiering locally, in summer 2013, after failing to secure a major festival platform. Its humongous US$60 million box-office in South Korea, where it became almost a national duty to see the film, hasn't been repeated elsewhere so far.
After briefly sketching the failed 2014 experiment to halt global warming that led to another ice age, the story proper starts in 2031, when Snowpiercer, the "Train of Life", has already been circling the globe non-stop for 17 years. The original manga, drawn by Jean-Marc ROCHETTE, first appeared 30 years ago; by not setting itself equally far in the future, the film immediately loses a point for believability. That wouldn't matter so much if it established a really original look and approach to grip the viewer, but the content of Snowpiercer has a hand-me-down feel that recalls many other, often better, movies.
The story itself is a creakingly obvious allegory of class rebellion, and the film's production and costume design in its early stages recalls any number of war dramas with grungy refugees or prisoners herded into cattle-trucks. When the breakout gets going after 25 minutes, and the motley bunch of revolutionaries — led, of course, by a can-do American — starts fighting its way up the train, the action lacks any sense of stylisation, either elaborate or brutal, and sometimes doesn't even make sense (as in a bizarre sniping sequence as the train rounds a long corner). Bong just doesn't seem naturally at home in the genre: one sequence, set in darkness as the train plunges into a tunnel, comes across as a pale tribute to the far better hammer-fight in Park's Old Boy 올드보이 (2003).
By the time the action reaches the comfy, elite section of the train, the visual design blessedly lightens from its unrelieved greyness. Alas, the script, co-written by US playwright Kelly MASTERSON (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, 2007; TV movie Killing Kennedy, 2013), remains simplistic, hardly developing its political or character elements. The final confrontation with the train's owner — US super-industrialist Wilford, around whom a personality cult has been created — is utterly anti-climactic after the long lead-up, with actor Ed HARRIS lacking his usual edge and looking as if he's not convinced by what he's saying either.
Harris isn't the only weak link in a cast that conspicuously fails to gel. Out of tights here, Chris EVANS (Fantastic Four, Captain America: The First Avenger) brings zero personality to his woolly-hatted revolutionary leader; British actor Jamie BELL, complete with an Irish accent, is more colourful as his sidekick but doesn't last the course; others, like the US' Octavia SPENCER, don't go beyond light character filling. John HURT contributes a rote, grizzled performance as the revolutionaries' aged leader, Gilliam (!), but all pale into insignificance in the face of an over-the-top stint by Tilda SWINTON that the movie will be most remembered for. Kitted out with goofy teeth and glasses, and a northern British accent that seems to be channeling late British actress Thora Hird, Swinton looks as if she's wandered in from a crazed UK sitcom. Her "Minister Mason", in charge of train security, is hugely entertaining but is so out-of-kilter with the rest of the cast that it looks as if she's sending up the whole production.
Representing an Asian element, both SONG Gang-ho 송강호 | 宋康昊 (Memories of Murder, The Host) and GO A-seong 고아성 (as in The Host, playing his daughter) look out of place, and Song is especially muted as a drug-addicted technician who communicates through a translation gizmo. Through no fault of their own, Song and Go typify the film's lack of cohesion at almost every level.
Aside from a brief final sequence shot in Austria that's borderline laughable, the movie was entirely made at Barrandov Studios in Prague, over 72 days for a reported US$40 million. Model and visual effects are okay but nothing special by today's standards, and certainly not by current South Korean levels. The film also loses visual clout — especially for a "horizontal" subject like a train journey — by being in 1.85 rather than widescreen. Hopefully, Snowpiercer will prove to be a diversion in Bong's career before he gets back to what he does best.