This Friday, audiences in the U.S. will get to see the foreign-film distribution equivalent of a Sophie’s choice: the result of a director forced to pick between two undesirable options. Bong Joon Ho, probably Korea’s most consistently successful big-budget director, capable of pleasing millions of ticket buyers and hundreds of film critics simultaneously, made a science-fiction epic, Snowpiercer, to launch his international career. Unlike his comrade Kim Jee-woon who made his international debut with a forgettable $45 million Arnold Schwarzenegger B-movie (The Last Stand, 13), or Park Chan-wook (Snowpiercer’s producer) who took a small budget to make a small English-language movie (Stoker, 13), Bong did what is becoming more and more common: he split the difference. Taking Korean money, an English-language script, and a bunch of American and British actors, he headed to Europe to shoot, then sold his movie internationally, treating America as just one more foreign territory rather than as the promised land.
Unfortunately, he sold those English-language rights to the Weinstein Company who, in typical Weinstein fashion, declared that American audiences were morons who couldn’t follow the plot and so they’d have to cut 20 minutes from the film and add voiceover narration to the ending in order to render Bong’s film comprehensible to this nation of presumed mouth-breathers. Bong held out for seven months, but finally he took the choice the Weinsteins offered him, trading a wide release for artistic control. So now this big-budget ($39 million) science-fiction epic (with over $80 million and counting at the global box office) starring Chris Evans (Captain America himself, and star of the top-grossing American movie of 2014), Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help), Song Kang-Ho (The Host), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), John Hurt (The Elephant Man), Ed Harris (Pollock), and Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is creeping onto seven screens in five cities on June 27, before expanding to 50 more screens the following week. Transformers 4 opens the same day on 4,000 screens.
If you actually get to see Snowpiercer—and it will be available in short order on Region 1 DVD and VOD even if it’s not coming to a theater near you—you’ll probably be baffled as to exactly what brain-boiling complexity dreamed up by these foreign devils the Weinsteins thought they were protecting us from. The movie could not be more straightforward. In the future, an untested solution to global warming accidentally freezes the planet. Seventeen years later, the last survivors live on a train that never stops circling the globe. The poor people live in the rear of the train while the rich people live in the front. When the movie begins, a gang of revolutionaries led by Chris Evans decide to fight their way forward and take over the engine thus… making the world a better place? Getting more carbs in their diet? They haven’t really thought that part through yet. Nevertheless, it would be hard to come up with a more intuitive plot. Rear = bad. Front = good.
And yet it’s this perceived predictability that becomes the movie’s greatest strength. Watching Snowpiercer is like having the crap beaten out of you by a judo master: the weight of your own expectations keep dumping you on the floor. The predictable sci-fi blockbuster plot points keep getting overturned in ways both large and small. This is one of the few big science-fiction films in a long time to feature a truly multiethnic cast of heroes (although the villains are all Anglo). And there are also plenty of spoiler-ific macro-surprises having to do with plot and character (you’ve heard it before, but: no one is who they seem). Most unexpectedly for a movie of this size, the Michael Bay money shot of pyrotechnic bukkake comes as an afterthought. The grand climax of Bong’s movie is a pair of monologues, one delivered by Chris Evans and the other by Ed Harris, that land like body blows.
Then there are the micro-surprises that constantly goose your attention. Song Kang-ho steals a fur coat in the background of one shot, in what’s apparently a funny bit of character detail to show that this impulsive junkie is behaving true to form. Nope, it turns out to be a key element in his master plan. John Hurt, playing Gilliam (as in Terry), the grizzled elder statesman of the rear of the train, tells his exhausted warriors to “wash off their blood” in a bit of phony multiplex poetry. Not so much: later he reveals that it was a way to inspect wounds and determine who could keep moving forward. Even the production design gets in on the act with a bunch of hoodlums in balaclavas who appear out of nowhere, but disconcertingly their balaclavas don’t have eyeholes—only mouth holes.
Being unpredictable is regarded by Hollywood execs the same way food poisoning is regarded by wedding planners, especially when you’re in big-budget sci-fi territory. Why did Transformers: Extinction of the Dark Fallen make a zillion bucks and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim make zero? Hollywood’s takeaway was that audiences must like their science fiction to be completely predictable. Bong’s Snowpiercer falls closer to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or 12 Monkeys than it does to Captain America 3: Snakes on a Train, and that’s an invitation to stick a movie on the shelf and forget about it. Who wants to be the guy who greenlights another Alien: Resurrection?
But Bong’s movies get their energy from volatile moments that are less literal and more poetic. At the climax of his debut feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite (00), a crowd of spectators materializes out of nowhere to cheer on a chase between the two main characters as if it’s the Olympics. And the ending of Memories of Murder (03) is a character moment that feels emotionally accurate, but would never happen in real life (despite being based on actual events). Same with Snowpiercer. As the grubby revolutionaries make their way towards the front of the train, they encounter a high-end sushi restaurant. Behind the elegant counter, enormous windows show the frozen ruins of the old world rushing by. No one engaged in the violent overthrow of a totalitarian government would ever stop for a sushi break, and yet there’s something emotionally resonant about these people sitting down to eat the stereotypical meal of the one percent as the ruins of our civilization pass behind them like little more than nice scenery. It’s a moment of pure cinema that you feel in your heart, not your head, and this movie is full of them.
But in another judo throw, what ultimately makes Snowpiercer powerful is not its unpredictability or its poetry, but its literalism. Throughout the movie, the oppressors—played by Tilda Swinton as the aborted, buck-toothed love child of Margaret Thatcher and a white rabbit, and Ed Harris as the ultimate bad daddy in a bachelor pad complete with hotplate—emphasize repeatedly that “Everyone must stay in their place to ensure order.” That’s a pretty standard bad-guy line from a million different action movies, on an intellectual par with “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too,” but Bong takes it very literally. The train in Snowpiercer is a closed ecosystem. If one person is born, another has to die, or the entire species faces extinction. There’s simply nowhere else to go, and no alternatives. It’s a chilling representation of real-world limitations, especially for bleeding-heart liberals like myself.
It’s a tenet of liberal humanism that everyone should have hopes and dreams and we should strive to give everyone the opportunity to achieve those dreams. Reach for the stars! Have an education! You can be anything you want to be! We pay lip service to those ideals—but like the train in Snowpiercer, consumer lifestyles demand the existence of poor people. I need dishwashers whose biggest dream is $8 an hour or I can’t afford to go out to a nice restaurant. I need Chinese people to get cancer making iPhones because otherwise I won’t be able to afford one. I may beat the drum for equality until my arms are sore, but the fact is that I live in a system in which I receive a vast amount of benefit thanks to the exploitation of people further down the economic ladder. And as much as I like to think otherwise, I spend most of my day advancing my own interests, making money, and paying my mortgage, and not a lot of time changing the world. Why should I? This is a very comfortable system for me.
And that’s the heart of Bong’s movie. The question Bong asks with Snowpiercer is whether a world that requires some people to work for poverty-level wages so that others can afford $1.99 flip-flops is even a world worth saving. Bong seems to be putting forward the tough truth that capitalism requires exploitation, and if we’re not comfortable with that fact, then self-annihilation is the only alternative. Maybe after 2,000 years, if this deeply flawed system is the best we can come up with, then it’s time to call a halt to this experiment, blow it all up, and let the animals have the planet again.
And maybe the Weinsteins, whose marketing has often trafficked in fuzzy NPR-esque humanism, knew what they were doing after all. Bong’s message that our species has failed is tough to swallow, and as an American who believes in redemption, second chances, and that it’s never too late to address income inequality and global warming, it practically made me break out in hives. Yet that tough-minded conservative attitude is the engine that drives this film, and to ignore it means that you’re missing Bong’s point.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
... Want another point of view on Snowpiercer? Derek Elley of FilmBiz Asia didn’t like it very much. He advises director Bong to “get back to what he does best.” I’m sure everyone involved in the production is grateful for Mr. Elley’s thoughtful advice.
King Naresuan V
... On May 22, the Royal Thai Armed Forces staged a military coup and installed the newspeak-named National Council for Peace and Order, which declared martial law, implemented a curfew, banned political gatherings, arrested protestors, and took over the media. Now they’ve launched a “Happiness Campaign” which requires the World Cup to be broadcast for free, gives people free haircuts, and distributes free tickets to the latest movie in the national Thai film franchise, King Naresuan V. Happy Dystopia, everyone!
... It’s the team-up you’ve never asked for! Adrien Brody! John Cusack! Jackie Chan with a soul patch! All in the most expensive Chinese movie of all time ($65 million) directed by Daniel Lee (14 Blades). Shooting has already begun on Dragon Blade, the story of a legion of Roman centurions who wind up in China around 48 B.C. The movie is expected to come out in 2015.
... You capitalist running dogs can keep your 3-D movies—because North Korea, the home of the brilliant comrade, young master, and outstanding leader Kim Jong-un, has 4-D movies! Suck it, enemies of this highly dignified socialist country. The 4-D experience is brought to you via “rhythmic facilities” that “give pleasure to the people,” and it all sounds light-years ahead of anything we have here in the backwards West. In this amazing 8-minute news clip (in English) from North Korea, one audience member exclaims: “I have just flew around the world and seen the Ancient Roman Empire, the Eiffel Tower of France, and pyramids and sphinx in Egypt.” Who needs air travel when these wonders can all be yours without leaving the lap of the outstanding leader? “My hands were itching to catch the fish,” one young comrade exclaims. I’ll say! When 84% of the households in North Korea report “poor or borderline” food consumption, I bet those fish look delicious. Thank you for letting us look at them, Comrade Kim!
... The latest big Bollywood release, Ek Villain, seems to be an unauthorized musical remake of I Saw the Devil, the Korean movie by Kim Jee-woon, only with more CGI dolphins and butterflies. The director of Ek Villain, Mohit Suri, denies these rumors but since his 2007 movie, Awarapan, was an unauthorized musical remake of Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life, people are having a hard time believing him. “That’s just one dialogue that I have taken from the Korean film’s promo,” Suri explains. “I have taken another dialogue from the film Jack Reacher . . . I wasn’t born with dialogues in my head!”
Golden Chicken 3
... Don’t know who Sandra Ng is? Then get yourself to the New York Asian Film Festival (June 27 - July 14). Ng started out in Hong Kong as a comedienne making any movie that was thrown her way, but over the years she’s developed into one of the city’s best-loved stars, most notably for her role playing a lesbian pimp, Sister 13, in the Young and Dangerous series, and for her role as an irrepressibly optimistic hooker in the Golden Chicken films. Celebrating sex in all its varieties, and fighting for everyone’s right to get laid no matter their race, religion, disability, or marital status, Sandra Ng has become a middle-aged, sex-positive hero, and she’ll be getting the Queen of Comedy Star Asia Award on the festival’s opening weekend.
... Ning Hao is clearly back with a vengeance. A trailer is up for his new movie, Xin hua lu fang, about two friends who hit the road to repair their broken hearts. Ning says that he made the film to make up for some personal regrets after shooting No Man's Land.