After a failed global-warming experiment, a post-apocalyptic Ice Age has killed off nearly all life on the planet. All that remains of humanity are the lucky few survivors that boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, powered by a sacred perpetual-motion engine. A class system has evolved aboard the train, fiercely dividing its population—but a revolution is brewing. The lower-class passengers in the tail section stage an uprising, moving car-by-car up toward the front of the train, where the train's creator and absolute authority resides in splendor. But unexpected circumstances lie in wait for humanity’s tenacious survivors... (From RADiUS TWC’s official synopsis)
In the late 1990s, South Korean cinema and K-Pop musical icons (think Rain and Psy) made a splash in the Western world. This era is generally referred to as the ‘Korean Wave’ (or Hánliú) and developed the worldwide reputations of a number of filmmakers, including Ryoo Seung-wan (Crying Fist, 2005), Jang Joon-hwan (Save the Green Planet, 2003), and Park Kwang-hyun (Welcome to Dongmakgol, 2005). The movement’s three major players – Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, 2003), Kim Jee-woon (or Ji-woon, A Bittersweet Life), and the subject of this review (2020 edit: and multi-Oscar-winner!) Bong Joon-ho – all made English language debuts in 2013. While Park and Kim dabbled in different genres, their personalities and specific styles were always fully represented in their work. As a result, Kim stuck to his strengths as an action film director and made an action-packed (modestly-budgeted) Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle called The Last Stand and Park stuck to his strengths with a baroque, lush thriller called Stoker.
Bong’s career isn’t as easily defined. Like those contemporaries, he immersed himself in varied genres and infused them with breakneck tonal shifts, but the only definitive common link between his films is a subversive nature. His second film, Memories of Murder (2003), defied the expectations of a serial killer drama by extending the narrative and focusing on the effects of criminal procedure on the detectives, instead of the visceral impacts of the murders (David Fincher’s 2007 film, Zodiac, and the 2017 Netflix series he helped develop, Mindhunters, both borrowed heavily from Memories of Murder). His third film, The Host (2006) redefined the kaiju monster tradition for modern Korean audiences and brought the environmental and social subtexts of the original Gojira (1954) to the fore. And his fourth movie, Mother (2009), cast a middle-aged woman in the unlikely role of an amateur sleuth and (anti-)action hero. His first English language film (2020 edit: currently of two – it was followed by 2017’s Okja), Snowpiercer, is only fifth as director, compared to Park’s nine and Kim’s seven and not including shorts and anthologies, and easily the most ambitious of the three 2013 releases.
Snowpiercer is based on Le Transperceneige, a popular 1982 comic book (or “graphic novel,” as the film’s producers would prefer you called it) from French author Jacques Lob with subsequent collections by Benjamin Legrand and writer/artist Jean-Marc Rochette. The basic story owes a large debt to Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou’s genre-defining sci-fi masterpiece, Metropolis (von Harbou’s book was published in 1925 and Lang’s film, featuring a screenplay by von Harbou, was released in 1927). In Metropolis, an elaborate class system is built into a towering city with the poorest toiling below as the rich and privileged lead extravagant, carefree lives atop lavish skyscrapers. Lob’s comic takes the concept and literally tilts it onto its side, creating a horizontal class system, where the elite live it up at the front of an impossibly long train, while the salt of the earth is held under hobnail boots at the tail end. Lang & von Harbou’s high fantasy concepts were underlined by real-world political subtexts and influenced by familiar mythological and Biblical sources. Accordingly, Snowpiercer (the film) also draws from theological themes and does not hide its socially conscious message.
Bong’s script, which was co-written by Kelly Masterson (writer of Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007), is an adaptation of the first collection of Lob’s comic (which was the only collection available in English at the time of this review). Not unexpectedly, the movie only uses its source as a jumping-off point for a much more Bong-friendly (no pun intended) and unique narrative. The comic tells the straight-forward story of a single tail-ender’s journey to the front of the train, where he learns about the vast differences in social classes (more appear here than in the movie) and (spoiler alert) eventually finds himself taking over engineering duties (end spoiler alert). Besides introducing a group contingent to the journey from third class to first class, adding a more accessible and modern political subtext, Bong deletes a central love story. In the comic, the main character develops a quick and conventional romantic relationship with a compassionate front-ender, while Bong surrounds his hero with supportive relationships that are (as far as we know) entirely platonic. This is consistent with Bong’s other films, which almost always forego traditional romance in favor of familial relationships – Memories of Murder revolves around a brotherhood of detectives, The Host is built on the strength of an nuclear family and their foundling, and Mother involves a parent going to great lengths for her vulnerable adult child. Bong also updates the frozen wasteland’s origin story, turning it from the side effect of a world war to humanity’s failed attempt at curing global warming, rendering it more relevant to 21st century viewers (the comic was published in 1982).
Here in North America, Snowpiercer’s fantastic reviews were overshadowed by its crummy treatment by The Weinstein Company (technically Radius TWC). Harvey Weinstein’s notorious appetite for altering/re-editing Asian films for western audiences has been legendary for decades (2020 edit: though now rightfully overshadowed by far more nefarious acts). The implication that Western audiences and Korean/Chinese/Hong Kong/Japanese/et cetera filmmakers are inherently incompatible is, of course, insulting to both cultures, yet, despite culling such a negative reputation and losing money on almost every acquisition, “Harvey Scissorhands” continued to go out of his way to acquire distribution rights and mangle Asian productions. Bong refused to cut the film, after initially attempting to be diplomatic, and Weinstein eventually conceded after word of mouth turned against him, but he dialed it back from a major to a limited release. At least the Weinstein trailers were smart enough to not reveal too much about the movie, merely hinting at the wacky conceptual and visual shifts. Theoretically, the ads held back on the weird stuff because the Weinsteins were afraid it would turn North American audiences off, but it all worked out for the best.
And that weird streak almost entirely belongs to Bong. In a reversal of the industry standard, the source comic is the more conventional version of the story. For example, the comic briefly establishes that a religious order has developed aboard the train, but Bong amplifies the concept to be the bedrock of his antagonists’ belief system, turning them from apathetic bureaucrats and xenophobic soldiers into dangerous zealots who genuinely believe the horrible dogma that they preach and drill into their children. He also makes major dynamic distinctions between the train’s class structures. The comic’s drab, sullen imagery is punched up with fantastical production design from Ondrej Nekvasil and eclectic outre costumes from Catherine George. The front-enders are portrayed as nearly literal clowns that base their lifestyles on second-hand knowledge of what rich people did before the world froze over. (2020 edit: similar worship of grotesque wealth is also found in Okja and Parasite , as well as The Host, though to a lesser extent. All four clearly criticize the avarice of Capitalism) Tilda Swinton embodies the vulgarity of these beliefs with her full-ham depiction of the train’s second in command, Mason. Bong clearly has a great rapport with all of the actors, despite the language barrier, and brings out wonderful performances in all of them, but Swinton is like the film’s rotting spiritual center – a gnarly, toothy blowhard that believes in the cause, but not enough to risk her life in its name.
Snowpiercer was shot on traditional 35mm film and is presented in 1.78:1, 1080p video on this Blu-ray release (slightly cropped from its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio). The film source gives the movie a nice, grainy texture, while the clarity of this transfer ensures that the grain doesn’t overwhelm the fine details. The early parts of the film are very dark and Bong and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo use a lot of pin-pointed focus to create a sense of shifting depth throughout the film, both of which lead to additional challenges, but the vital highlights and complex patterns remain crisp throughout. These scenes are also desaturated and almost duotoned between blue-green backdrops and orange-green flesh tones. These limited, slightly muddy palettes are sharply contrasted against the vivid colors of Tilda Swinton’s garish costumes. As the heroes make their way to the front of the train, the lighting schemes get brighter, the compositions get cleaner, and the colors become more vivid and intricate. The focus (usually creating either shallow backgrounds or blurry foregrounds) produces some blown-out edges and overlapping hues, but the general effect is clean and most of the color blends and gradations are smooth. Black levels are strong and compression effects are basically non-existent (yet the darker, grainier scenes are a smidge blocky).
Snowpiercer took so long to get a release stateside that I seriously considered buying the French Blu-ray release from Wild Side Video. I only hesitated when I discovered that the disc didn’t have an English subtitle option. For the most part, Snowpiercer is an English-language film – Bong even includes in-film handheld translation devices for the two Korean-speaking actors (superstar Song Kang-ho and his The Host co-star Go Ah-sung) – but there are a handful of interactions that require subtitles for anyone limited to an English vocabulary. This Blu-ray has subtitles. It also features one hell of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Snowpiercer doesn’t quite have the budget to compete with Hollywood blockbusters in terms of visual effects (the digitally-enhancements are limited to a few key sequences), but it certainly has a studio-level mix. The sound designers don’t overwhelm the track with a constant stream of blaring noise, but they do keep the various channels very busy. Even the low-key, dialogue-heavy scenes are brimming with directional vocal effects and the incessant rumble and squeak of the train. Insert shots of the train piercing snow and ice are big and loud, though not quite as impressive as the action sequences with their intricate splats, thunks, clangs, and gunshots. Marco Beltrami’s super brassy and industrial-infused score is awesomely bass-heavy, crisp, and finely separated into its various instrumental elements.
The Weinsteins might have sabotaged any chance Snowpiercer had for box-office success, but they (and Anchor Bay) didn’t skimp on the extras, including the stuff previously available on the aforementioned French Blu-ray, along with a number of brand new supplements:
Critics’ group commentary, featuring James Rocchi (MSN Movies), William Goss (Austin Chronicle), Drew McWeeny (Hitfix.com), Jennifer Yamato (Deadline), and Peter S. Hall (Movies.com), hosted by Scott Weinberg.
Transperceneige: From the Blank Page to the Black Screen (54:30, HD) – A French language making-of documentary directed by Jesus Castro-Ortega. It begins with a look at the original comic (complete with artist/writer interviews and nice ‘motion-comic’ images), then goes on to trace the film’s early production, mostly from Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette’s point of view. This includes adaptation (technically, the Korean translation Bong read had been a bootleg), Legrand and Rochette set visits/cameo appearances, production design (Rochette drew many of the illustrations that appear in the film), and a special screening of the finished film.
The Birth of Snowpiercer (15:10, HD) – A Korean EPK that includes cast & crew interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and some production design images.
The Characters (13:10, HD) – Further interviews with the cast & crew from the Korean EPK, concerning the characters, specifically.
Animated prologue (4:30, HD)
Chris Evans & Tilda Swinton on Snowpiercer (4:40, HD) – The Weinstein Company’s EPK
The Train Brought to Life: Behind the Scenes of a Special Screening (8:10, HD) – Footage from an outdoor screening by Alamo Drafthouse and a follow-up Q&A with Drafthouse’s Tim League.
Concept art galleries
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