Finally available this week on Netflix after being released in the heat of this year’s blockbuster-packed summer, Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” offers a bizarre yet brilliant post-apocalyptic thrill. The film is based on a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige, and follows a train carrying Earth’s lingering population as it traverses the frozen remains of our destroyed planet. Social stratification divides the train, as Chris Evans, in an oddly creative departure from his Marvel career, leads a violent revolt against the powerful elite reveling in the front cars. Although the unrestrained bloody mess that dominates the 126-minute runtime ultimately hindered the movie’s wide release, the film should still be celebrated as a work of brave filmic and aesthetic innovation.
On the surface, “Snowpiercer” should be hailed simply for attempting to twist a static genre. The film separated itself immediately from its summer contemporaries with the opening frames, as a frozen tundra engulfs an audience undoubtedly still sweating from the city heat. The film never leaves the cramped quarters of the train as Bong Joon-ho and his production team present the spectacular collision of careful technical craft with a wild and chaotic violence. We never lose our position within the tight space as the editing and cinematography maintain a constant momentum, pushing the action left to right across the screen and toward the front of the train. As the rebellion moves forward, the film embraces the excitement of a video-game structure, with each new car unlocking a surprise. Each succeeding level becomes a masterfully designed set-piece revealing the excesses of Bong’s perversely opulent world. For a summer action movie, “Snowpiercer” scraps tired conventions in order to rethink the medium’s artistically experiential potential while making a bold statement about class conflict.
But Bong isn’t the first director in recent years to confront class politics in popular cinema. As David Denby’s review of the film in The New Yorker points out, the post-Occupy wave of apocalyptic science-fiction films – “Snowpiercer,” “Elysium,” “The Hunger Games,” – have finally glorified the struggling masses and demonized the excesses of the one percent. “Is revolution being hatched in the commercial cinema?” Denby asks. But despite these thematic trends as of late, the disturbing production battle behind “Snowpiercer” might ultimately dampen our radical optimism.
When Harvey Weinstein bought the rights to release the film in the U.S., he was unsettled by the film’s surrealist tone, harsh violence, and other facets of what Bong and his contemporaries have brilliantly cultivated into a modern Korean aesthetic. When Weinstein tried to slash 20 minutes from the final cut and Bong refused, the producer levied a punishment. The movie was condemned to the limited-release, video-on-demand half-life of The Weinstein Co.’s RADiUS-TWC offshoot brand. The summer “blockbuster” made it to only 100 art-house screens across the country.
“Snowpiercer’s” Netflix release will hopefully open the film to the wide audience it deserves. But with his critically acclaimed English-language debut, Bong has entered a truly conflicted American movie industry. While Hollywood continues to crank out token stories of progressivism that only begin to question the centers of corrupt authority, even the leading voices of independent cinema are groping for conservative stability. Revolutionary artistic visions are being stifled by an overly cautious power structure.
But maybe Bong Joon-ho is the director to shake us from this slumber. With his epic and hilarious 2006 monster film “The Host,” Bong satirized the United States’ involvement in Korean affairs with a story about American doctors dumping formaldehyde into the Han River. This same theme of unwanted meddling continues through “Snowpiercer,” where we learn that the frozen landscape that plagues the world was caused by failed experiments from government climate experts launching chemicals into the atmosphere. Now, as Bong boldly confronts the prying hands of Hollywood’s elite, his work shows that he is unafraid to challenge the established authority. Bong’s rebellion is shaking up the film industry, and he’s only just begun.