It’s the train movie to end all train movies, a dystopic vision full of vivid characters, dark humour, awe-inspiring revelations and surreal imagery. But it looks as though British audiences won’t be allowed to enjoy Snowpiercer as its director intended. Harvey Weinstein – whose The Weinstein Company is distributing Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi action epic in English-speaking territories – is planning to cut it by a whopping great 20 minutes. “They want a more speedy tempo,” the director said in an interview with James Marsh of Twitchfilm.
Bong’s earlier films (Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother among them) have been notable for their refusal to trundle along the usual cliché-strewn paths. So it’s ironic that The Weinstein Company risks excising precisely what makes the Korean director’s work so special – attention to character, unorthodox pacing, avoidance of melodrama. Bong’s first English language film has already broken box-office records in South Korea, and held its own against Hollywood competition in France. Clearly, English-speaking audiences are considered less capable than Korean or French ones of appreciating anything that might deviate from the usual formula.
Snowpiercer is set 17 years after a solution to global warming has gone horribly wrong, plunging the world into another ice age and killing off most of humanity. The survivors are left endlessly circling the globe in a super-train powered by a perpetual motion engine that has taken on mythological proportions, worshipped (like its inventor) from afar, but glimpsed only by a few. And certainly not by Chris Evans (better known to audiences as Captain America) as the reluctant leader of a raggle-taggle bunch of grimy-faced have-nots who for as long as they can remember have been scrabbling for survival in the train’s tail section.
Conditions are hellish: these unfortunates are head-counted by lackeys with guns, fed on a diet of dodgy-looking protein blocks, forcibly separated from their children, and punished for any attempt at insurrection with an especially cruel and unusual method of limb-amputation. Jamie Bell plays Evans’ sidekick, John Hurt his grizzled one-legged, one-armed mentor; Ewen Bremner’s in there too, and if you ever fancied seeing Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer in a kick-ass action role, here’s your chance.
To rub in the ghastliness of their situation, they’re also on the receiving end of know-your-place speeches from a hilarious Tilda Swinton, eccentricity dialled up to 11 as a Yorkshire accented representative of the elite, all purple pantsuit, furs and false teeth. We think we know what will happen; the downtrodden steerage passengers will finally be pushed over the edge and rebel against their oppressors, exactly as we’ve seen in Elysium and In Time and countless other sci-fi movies. It’s all a bit predictable.
Except that this time, it’s not. This is Elysium plus Speed plus The Wizard of Oz plus Bluebeard’s Castle, plus pure Bong. What in most Hollywood films would be the climax of the movie starts playing out at around the half hour mark; the rest of the film turns into an epic journey to the front of the very, very long train, the larger quest made up of a series of unexpected obstacles, odd encounters and astonishing tableaux.
That the allegory is obvious – the train is a microcosm of capitalist society – doesn’t diminish the forward thrust of the story, adapted from the French BD (graphic novel) Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette.
But where Hollywood would bolster its heroes’ motivation by clunky backstory, Snowpiercer lets their actions speak for themselves, parcelling out revelations so that the defining ones are saved for the later stages. Where Hollywood would give us an idealised haves-versus-have-nots scenario, Snowpiercer shows it’s not as simple as that. It’s the mark of a smart screenplay (co-written by Kelly Masterton, who also worked on Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sidney Lumet’s final film) that you find yourself seeing the logic in the point of view of characters you don’t agree with, or even like.
And where Hollywood would give us escalating action building to a climax full of sound and fury, Bong slows down the pace when you’re least expecting it. This doesn’t make the film any less gripping; if anything, it gives it more heft.
But to reveal more would be to spoil the surprises – some delicious, others nasty. Suffice to say, there is a lot of vicious and bloody close-quarter combat which makes the infamous corridor fight in Oldboy seem positively restrained, and there’s a welcome pit-stop when our forward-bound travellers pause to pick up a drug-addled security expert played by Song Kang-ho, a Bong Joon-ho regular and one of the coolest actors alive, who is provided with an elegant way of delivering his dialogue in Korean.
Among other treats, there are exquisite contributions from Ed Harris and Alison Pill, a shout-out to The Shining, and Evans pulling off a heartbreaking monologue with such conviction it has shot him to the top of my Thinking Person’s Action Hero list.
As another character describes his own situation, it’s “A blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot.” It’s just a shame that The Wenstein Company seems determined to flatten it out into just another bog-standard action pic. Surely we have enough of those already?
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in November 2013. I made a daytrip from Brussels (where I live) over the border to Lille especially to see the film, since it wouldn’t be coming out in Belgium until a whopping four months later.
Nevertheless, I was more fortunate than those in English-speaking territories who, thanks to The Weinstein Company’s procrastinations, were able to catch up with it only much later, via odd festival screenings, streaming or, finally, in an uncut DVD version. It seems a strange way of distributing a film, especially one best seen on the biggest screen you can find.