Friday, November 01, 2013

Snowpiercer – Bong Joon-ho

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho – South Korea/USA/France) 126 minutes

Bong Joon-ho, director of the excellent Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother, makes his first foray into English-language film for what is the most expensive South Korean production in history. Unfortunately, the whole thing is a sorry mess. Snowpiercer is based on a mostly forgotten French comic book Le Transperceneige, which started running in 1984, and the production design, which is admirable, borrows heavily from the source material. The opening sequences inform us that in 2014, world governments, in a desperate attempt to offset global warming, smothered the planet in a chemical called CW7, which accelerated the onset of a new Ice Age. All life on Earth has died, with the only survivors having boarded, Noah’s Ark-like, a massive train, powered by a perpetual-motion engine. Now, seventeen years in the future, it travels continuously across the Asian, European and African landmasses on a circuit that had been built by its megalomaniac industrialist owner, one Mr Wilford.

The train is divided according to a binary class system, with those at the head ruthlessly suppressing the proles in the tail. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to this division, other than arbitrary pauperisation in the interest of Wilford’s holistic belief of constant order – the underclass does not appear to be retained to do any work, be it slave or indentured. The tail-dwellers, living in squalid, cramped misery, mount a new revolt – all previous ones have been savagely put down – masterminded by Gilliam (John Hurt), a crippled Gandalf-type figure, and led by Curtis (Chris Evans) in which they hope to get to the head of the train and take the ‘sacred’ engine. On the way they enlist the help of train engineer Namgoong (Bong regular Song Kang-go) and his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung), both of whom are addicted to Kromul, a drug made from industrial waste that is hugely popular in the front of the train.

Blocking their way is a fearsome army of security guards, led by Franco Elder (Vlad Ivanov – the abortionist from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) and overseen by Mason (Tilda Swinton as a weird cross of Margaret Thatcher with Nora Batty). The first disappointment of Snowpiercer is it doesn’t have anything to elevate itself above your run-of-the-mill apocalyptic drama, even though it clearly fancies that it does. The backstory remains as flat as it does on the page – comics can get away with short-hand like this, films need to flesh things out a bit more. The information that is divulged about the train’s history comes far too late in the film, by which time its possible dramatic impact is vitiated. It is also, for all the grisly scenes of axe murder, and talk of horrific living conditions, not a very disturbing film. Rarely do we get a real sense of menace, and even then, it mostly comes by way of the wordless killer played by Ivanov, whose character is pretty cliched anyway.

The dialogue, despite being worked on by New Yorker Kelly Masterson, is seriously hokey and embarrassing, with Swinton in particular being given some of the most cringe-worthy: ‘Water comes in the mouth, not through the bum’, when she explains how the engine absorbs snow for the train’s water supply. Chris Evans, who played Captain America in The Avengers, is far too lightweight a presence, and too wooden an actor, to carry a film as heroic leader. There are a few efforts at satire, such as a scene where kids are indoctrinated by a cheery schoolteacher (Alison Pill), but these are flat and one-dimensional. Snowpiercer has to recommend it some good production design and well-choreographed action sequences but it is for the most part catastrophically inept. Here’s hoping the talented Bong Joon-ho soon gets back to something smaller in scale and avoid the bombast on display here.