Long time ago in a newsroom not far away from where I am writing this, a colleague had the gall to claim that Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein was the patron saint and savior of independent and foreign films in this country. This colleague, a self-proclaimed movie cognoscenti and self-published novelist, had obviously never heard of the extraordinary work New Yorker Films, Janus Films and even The Beatles’ George Harrison, among others, had done on behalf of indie and foreign films before Miramax. And while there is no disputing the role Harvey and his brother Bob played in launching the careers of the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, there is also no disputing (like I told this colleague) that Harvey was equally notorious for re-editing those foreign films he acquired for the U.S. market while shelving others.
I was reminded of that “conversation” as I was getting ready to watch Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s brilliant science-fiction film, “Snowpiercer”. After acquiring its distribution rights for six English-speaking markets, The Weinstein Company (TWC) withheld the film from the fall film festival circuit because “their cut” wasn’t ready. A long fight began between both filmmaker and Harvey. Bong’s original 126-minute cut had performed incredibly well at both South Korea’s and France’s box-office. Word of the conflict soon lit the blogosphere; critics and some of the film’s international stars came to Bong’s defense and film critic Tony Rayns wrote an exhaustive report on the controversy in the January edition of the British film magazine “Sight and Sound.” Early this year, TWC and Bong agreed to a limited release of Bong’s cut instead of the wide release originally planned for it.
“Snowpiercer,” based on Jacques Lob’s and Jean-Marc Rochette’s graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” is a tightly edited, compact, solid piece of genre entertainment with something to say. Any cuts to it would have completely derailed the film. Bong and co-scriptwriter Kelly Masterson have methodically built a plausible vision of our future, one that asks that quintessential question that drives the engine of any science-fiction narrative: what if? In this case, what if the world’s governments found a solution to global warming and that solution backfired on all of humanity?
The year is 2031 and what’s left of the human race inhabits a 60+-car train that circles a now-frozen and snow-covered globe. Years ago, a chemical designed to bring down the earth’s temperature was deployed with catastrophic results. Designed by billionaire engineer Wilford, the train is a microcosm of a world that once was: where the have-nots inhabit the tail end of the train under deplorable conditions and the one-per centers the front. While the latter feast on sushi and steaks from fish and cattle perfectly preserved and in some cases raised, the lower classes are fed these gelatinous protein bars, their children kidnapped for unknown reasons. They are told over and over to “keep their place” by the school-marmish, Margaret Thatcher-channeling Mason (Tilda Swinton). This is definitely NOT Noah’s ark.
The ground is fertile for a revolt and that’s what happens when reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans a.k.a. Captain America) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), prodded by a series of cryptic messages from the front of the train, lead their downtrodden army on a march towards the engine. They first free Minsu (Song Kangho), the designer of the train’s security system, and his daughter; Minsu agrees to open each car as long as he is paid with the narcotic substance kronole. Curtis and his followers are met with bloody resistance by the train’s fascist armed forces. And they encounter self-enclosed worlds on each car, some full of wonder and others, like the classroom where children are indoctrinated into the train’s cultish devotion to its creator by a happy-happy joy-joy elementary school teacher (a creepily hilarious Alison Pill). They get a glimpse of the outside world. They lose friends and allies. If you are expecting an explosive climax, Bong delivers that…and more, in both a literal and figurative sense.
For while the action sequences are bloody, and brutal, and beautifully shot and edited, the violence here is portrayed as part and parcel of an oppressive system. All revolts are bloody and all are met with equally brutal force by the powers that be. The movies shifts in tone, from dark and suffocating to cartoonishly satirical, are handled with ease. And Bong takes his time developing his characters through their dialogue and their actions, no matter how over-the-top they may be.
“Snowpiercer” is more than a parable for our times: it asks tough questions about the human condition and the social and political systems that rule over it. As I was watching the film’s final act, the words of Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littin came to mind when he told me many years ago that all who supported Salvador Allende’s government and worked for it, like him, had engaged in a fight against the country’s ruling gerontocracy and against the status quo. You’ll understand why once Wilford’s true identity and motivation are revealed. The ending may not be what you are waiting for. But it, like the rest of the movie, demands and deserves your attention. Unlike any other superhero or franchise-driven pseudo science-fiction movie currently clogging our movie screens, “Snowpiercer” is the real deal.