Moving Forward
by Jeff Reichert

Dir. Bong Joon-ho, U.S./South Korea, Radius-TWC

What does it say about the state of contemporary action filmmaking that some of the most memorably thrilling movie set pieces in recent years were directed not by Hollywood heavyweights with unlimited funds, but by foreign-born movie lovers working relatively cheaply? These include Olivier Assayas (Carlos’s nervy envisioning of the 1975 Opec takeover), Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop’s brutal airplane bathroom fistfight), and Bong Joon-ho (The Host’s vagina-mouthed monster rampaging over a bunch of riverbank bathers). Each of these filmmakers treats action as the result of intricately detailed choreography between subject and camera, as opposed to an event that plays out in front of many cameras only to be recreated later on in the editing room. One could combine the budgets of The Host ($12 million), Carlos ($18 million), and Non-Stop ($50 million) and still not approach even half the purported costs of production for the forthcoming spectacle Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Sadly, the box office charts these days are dominated by the ponderous look-at-me slow-motion of Zack Snyder; the spatially incoherent, epileptic editing of Joss Whedon; and the sloppily canted framings and needless digital lens flares of J. J. Abrams. Compared to these three, Michael Bay is practically John Ford. There’s not a section of action or combat in The Avengers that seems considered enough to be worth remembering, but there are more than a handful of such sequences that linger after the credits roll in Bong’s new film, Snowpiercer. For instance: midway through a particularly tense, neatly choreographed sniper battle, the filmmaker directs our attentions away from the action to linger on a lone CGI snowflake blown into the frame through a bullet hole and one character’s surprised reaction to its existence. It’s a moment of respite, of unexpected beauty, and also a moment that will prove narratively crucial. Unlike in so many contemporary action films, Snowpiercer’s story doesn’t have to come to a screeching halt when the fighting starts.

Snowpiercer is loosely based on the first volume of the three-part bande dessinée Le Transperceneige written by Jacques Lob and illustrated by Jean-Marc Rochette and first published in 1984. The film’s source material isn’t notable in and of itself: the comic showcases little ingenuity in its line or form, its characters are unmemorable, and its narrative moves in a surprisingly aimless fashion considering it’s about a desperate forward rush to the front of a 1001-car train careening through a frozen apocalyptic landscape. Bong must have felt similarly: he’s jettisoned everything from Le Transperceneige except the train itself and the central concept of an onboard class hierarchy ensuring that the poorest refugees are crammed into a few windowless cars in the back with little food and warmth, while the upper classes luxuriate across an expanse of individually themed cars towards the front. Bong’s even updated the reason behind the world freeze: in Lob’s Cold War–era relic, a conflict between the Superpowers wrecked the Earth’s climate, while in Snowpiercer the threat of manmade global warming led humanity to bombard the atmosphere with a special freezing chemical, an effort gone horribly awry.

One might argue that Bong lifted the blueprint for his main character’s physiognomy from Rochette’s drawings of Le Transperceneige’s Proloff, who, after being caught in an escape attempt, spends the rest of the novel with his rounded head shorn of hair, which only emphasizes further his big, blunt (probably oft-broken) nose and solidly square chin. None other than Captain America himself, Chris Evans (he of a perfectly rounded head, blunted nose, and square chin) is cast as Bong’s reluctant hero, Curtis, who is at the center of an international cast that includes John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, and two Bong regulars, Song Kang-ho (The Host’s forlorn father) and Ko Ah-sung (his monster-kidnapped daughter).

We first meet Curtis while he’s in the midst of planning an insurrection with sidekick Edgar (Bell), the two striding through the cramped cars in search of a cryptic message; the setup affords Bong the opportunity to quickly, if at times clunkily (Bell, especially, is asked to speak in exposition), sketch out the contours of a world existing entirely within a speeding train, one in which, for many of its inhabitants, including Tilda Swinton’s (outfitted with some memorably horrible false teeth) fervent train authority apparatchik Mason, the idea of the perpetual-motion engine at the front takes on a religious bent.

Bong’s economical prologue, which dramatizes the freezing of the Earth with just a brief shot of airplanes slicing through the air accompanied by the blast of menacing Godzilla-esque horns, suggest a filmmaker in a hurry at the outset. The film hits its stride in the first action sequence, a kinetic rush of bodies and motion that sees the frustrated and starving rear-car dwellers fashioning a makeshift battering ram from empty oil drums and overrunning the security guards who’ve abused them and blockaded them from leaving their squalid quarters. Bong works well here within the confines of his set—though he’s bound by the tight interior space of a train, we only feel the claustrophobia of Snowpiercer when he wants us to. And his precise attention to realistic detail is welcome in this age of cinema where narrative difficulties are often overcome by the convenient employment of some superhero power or another—Curtis’s realization that the armed guards may have run out of bullets after a similar revolt years prior not only allows him to kickstart his journey but also provides the audience with a flood of information about this world’s mythology.

Aside from Kim Hye-ja’s dominating turn in Mother, the star of Bong’s movies has usually been Bong himself. (This runs in his favor in Snowpiercer as his oddly cobbled together international cast performs unevenly and occasionally at odds from each other.) Though, what’s most remarkable about Snowpiercer is less his notable skill at managing mise-en-scène when the fighting begins than his delirious visions of the train’s different environments that we see in between bouts of carnage. As Curtis’s company advances, they stop for an impromptu sushi lunch (sushi is only offered once a year so as to keep the ecological balance in the train’s aquarium car stable, we’re informed), run into a classroom in which a crazed Alison Pill indoctrinates children into the religion and history of the “Engine,” and pass through a rave populated by what must be Bong’s idea of near-future club kids. Each of these encounters feels both visually and tonally distinct and their collective weight expands the boundaries of his dystopia. One imagines that these often comedic digressions were those sections that, last winter, were destined for the cutting room floor in the fight over the film’s U.S. launch. (The film will, thankfully, be released intact, but in a more limited fashion than initially planned.) But they’re crucial to the film’s identity as an auteurist work; similar kinds of gambits have elevated Bong’s Barking Dogs Never Bite, The Host, and Mother beyond merely being examples of their chosen genres. Bong’s films are confounding in their own ways, at times encouraging us to laugh at the tragic and locate beauty within the ugliest of violence, and taking unexpected detours that might or might not end up connecting back to the narrative’s main thrust.

Snowpiercer is at its least successful in those moments of speechifying that hew more closely to genre expectations as opposed to those of Bong’s visual touches that often explode them. The way characters are often turned into exposition-deliverers, the quasi-mystical religious fervor with which others are asked to declaim about “The Engine”, even much of the simplistic rhetoric around class relations (these three come to an unintentionally comical head in Ed Harris’s late film cameo)—these are failures of screenwriting imagination that echo the hoariest bits of the original comic and make this perhaps Bong’s least persuasive narrative, even if it features some of his most memorable images. He is a filmmaker clearly in love with movies, and if you take apart Snowpiercer, you’ll find in its DNA bits of The Wizard of Oz, Brazil, City of Lost Children, even perhaps Quintet, and in his effort to provide fully rounded, Spielbergian entertainment, he perhaps over-delivers at times. This is certainly no crime, and if there are moments in Snowpiercer that blunt the velocity of its forward rush, the film’s overall effect is one of thrilling, unstoppable, and often even joyous movie momentum.