based on Le Transperceneige
by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette
2013 • 126 minutes • Moho Films, Opus Pictures
Was there ever such a tale of woe than that of Snowpiercer and its distribution?
This Boston Globe article goes into great detail about that saga, but suffice it to say that the Weinstein Company, who owns the American film rights, has done the film no favors, despite its massive popularity on director Bong Joon-ho’s home turf of South Korea. As a Radius film, American theaters balked at booking the film, given that subsidiary’s heavy involvement with video-on-demand. And when it finally got into a handful of theaters in the United States, excited viewers had to negotiate traveling to out of the way theaters (two hours, in the case of one of my friends) and waiting for it to open a week after some theaters got it. And we Americans are lucky—there are currently no plans for a proper UK release.
All of this sturm und drang was because the Weinstein Company thought that Snowpiercer was too abstract, too weird, and too incomprehensible for middle America. A reedited version was threatened, but never made it past test screenings. Unfamiliar with Bong as a filmmaker, I was prepared for something completely out there.
But nothing can really prepare you for Snowpiercer—not even reading the graphic novel, which tells a different story in the same setting. It manages to be perversely accessible, willfully surreal, truly dark, and utterly… well, itself. My friend Natalya and I have been talking about “passionate cinema” recently, right after we stopped singing “There Can Be Miracles” when we learned that Pacific Rim 2: Kaiju Bluegaloo was go. Passionate cinema is composed of films made by people who truly love the project. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with journeyman filmmaking—everybody’s gotta eat!—but there’s a unique joy to seeing something so wholehearted, so uncompromising, and so trusting of its audience.
Trust might seem an odd word to use, since Snowpiercer’s story is ultimately a simple one. But simple, as Pacific Rim told us last summer, does not mean stupid. Snowpiercer lets character beats occur physically and trusts its audience enough to never yell at them. Many have been tempted to call the film an allegory, the term of choice to elevate a simple story to sophisticated enough heights to, apparently, warrant analysis, but I agree with The Dissolve commenter Adam’s calling it a history, per Tolkien’s definition:
I’m also going to disagree with pretty much everybody I’ve seen writing about this and say that it is not a socialist allegory, not an allegory at all, but what Tolkien referred to as a “history.” In the introduction to LotR, he distinguishes the terms succinctly: “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” An allegory is an essentially limited and controlled parallel reality whose moral purpose is made clear. A history (again, oriented not to our shared reality but to the history of the story’s native reality) opens a world which can be delved into by any number of readers who can all come out having learned different lessons and drawn wholly different parallels.
Snowpiercer, in Bong’s hands, has a purity of narrative. While Curtis, the reluctant leader of the back of the train, originally begins the rebellion to take the front of the train to save his literal class, all of his nobler impulses are stripped away, one by one, until reaching the engine consumes him. After the losses he suffers, the only way is forward. It’s simple. But Bong deconstructs it, by following it to its logical ends. If the only way forward is revolution, then the only way forward is putting the oppressed over the oppressors, perpetuating the broken system. The answer Bong hits upon for this is radical, untidy, and complicated, and best left to the film itself to reveal.
But this film is not a dry political treatise. With these wonderful bones in place, Bong elaborates with stunning concepts, from the sheer madness of the upper classes on the train (who pause a bloody battle in order to celebrate New Year), the self-contained nature of the train, to Curtis himself. Chris Evans has expressed (as much as he can) his discomfort with the claims playing Captain America has his on career, but he’s manipulating that image so well. The film sets up Curtis as the hero, with his chiseled jaw and piercing blue stare, and spends the rest of it painfully disillusioning of that idea. Watching Curtis make increasingly cruel decisions until he finally makes the right decision is the greatest action set piece of the film.
Between this and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chris Evans has spent this summer in American movie theaters anchoring diverse summer blockbusters. (Snowpiercer deserves to be a blockbuster. If Inception could do it, so can Snowpiercer.) While the rest of the characters do not get as much screentime as Curtis, they’re still just as equally lived in, from Jamie Bell’s eager, painfully young Edgar to Octavia Butler’s determined Tanya to Luke Pasqualino’s tattooed near-mute Grey. But the standouts are Bong regulars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, a father daughter team of drug addicts who can open the various gates to the front. As the film slowly strips itself down to almost nothing, they become the only voices of sanity. Their chemistry and, in particular, Kang-ho’s quiet but blinding charisma anchor the film in its more surreal moments. Despite being an absolute horror wimp, I find myself compelled to seek out Kang-ho and Bong’s previous collaborations.
I saw this film in theaters.