Captain America’sÂ Winter Soldier had better let it go (let it go) or weâ€™ll all freeze and die.
In late June of 2014 (!), seventy nations came together to combat global warming by filling the air with something called CW-7. Unfortunately, this not only stopped global warming, but triggered an ice age. Almost all life on earth was wiped out. There was, however, a few lucky ones who managed to find safety on a special train meant to withstand extreme weather. The train is nearly a mile long and has 59 carriages, 60 if one includes the engine. This train takes a set path that goes around the world in a year. And it has been doing that for almost eighteen years. During that time, a new society emerged on the train, one with a rigid class structure and harsh rules. Now, it seems, that society is going to be challenged.
Roughly the first half of the train is catered to the hundreds of first class and economy ticketholders, along with their offspring. The other half is a lot more severe, with the final eighteen carriages housing the remnants and offspring of the one thousand â€œfreeloadersâ€ who had forced their way onto the train seventeen years ago. This tail section is overcrowded, neglected, abused, and occasionally kidnapped for forced labor by the more well-off people further towards the front. There had been failed revolts in the past, but they are getting restless again. Curtis Everett of the tail section seems to be poised to be the leader of this coming rebellion, though he is reluctant to take charge. Now, they have a plan. The various carriages in the train have different uses, but many of them are locked. Curtis, his sidekick Edgar, and a band of rebels will have to force their way to the prison car, which is a few cars forward, free the prisoner who had designed the door locks, and then make their way to the front of the train. It is unclear what they plan to do once they get to the front, but they believe that they will be able to wrest power from Wilford, the man who controls the train and the people inside. Curtis wants to kill Wilford and replace him with Gilliam, the aging leader of the tail section, though both Gilliam and Edgar think that Curtis should run the train. Actually, Curtis does not seem to have thought up exactly what he plans to have happen after taking the engine. The matter of â€œand then whatâ€ will have to be put aside until the revolution begins. Then something happens that pushes the whole project up.
A woman named Claude comes and has the guards take two little boys, Timmy and Andy. Andyâ€™s father, Andrew, throws a shoe at Claude and the guards attack him. For that, the guards expose Andrewâ€™s arm to the outside of the train until it freezes and then they smash it to pieces. Minister Mason gives the tail sections a lecture about them keeping their place in society, providing religious justification for punishing Andrew. Now, this rebellion is doubling as a rescue mission, with Tanya, Timmyâ€™s mother, demanding to take part.
When the time comes to start the revolt, the tail sectioners overwhelm the guards and rush to the prison section of the train. They find the imprisoned security expert, Namgoong Minsu, and try to get him to join their cause. He is rather out of it, and seems to have absolutely no sympathy for the tail sectioners and their rebellion. Curtis, however, knows that Namgoong Minsu is addicted to an industrial waste substance called Kronole, and promises to give him a lump each time that he unlocks a door for them. Nam frees another prisoner, his teenage daughter Yona, and says that they will also need to give her a lump of Kronole for each door he unlocks. And, thus, Curtis and his team embark on a violent journey from the back of the train to the front.
This movie isâ€¦wellâ€¦somewhat appropriate for me to talk about now, if only because my part of the country has just finished experiencing one of the worst winters in its recent history. It snowed as late as last Monday and there is still a wall of snow blocking my normal parking space. Then again, if I were typing this from South Korea, now might not be the best time. I would say why, but that would be a spoiler.
Snowpiercer is an international production of sorts. It is loosely based on a relatively obscure French comic book from the early 1980s called Le Transperceneige, or Snow Piercer. It comprises of many well-known Western actors like Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, and others who are better known outside the English-speaking world. Pretty much all of the shooting took place in a studio in Prague. The script, which is mostly in English, was co-written by an American and a lot of the crew is multinational. It had international funding. Make no mistake, though: this is not another example of an Asian director trying his hand at a Hollywood film and struggling throughout. From the inception, to the writing, to the production, to the direction, to the distribution, this is a Korean film. Would a Hollywood movie have a scene where a person walks through a train handing out eggs to the passengers? No. This is a Korean film. Perhaps, by that logic, the two Afghan films and the Vietnamese film that I had discussed were all actually French films, but this is my series and I get to decide what is what.
While director Bong Joon-ho tried to maintain the bleak and bitter feel of the original comic, he pretty much jettisoned the plot, characters, and several key components of the premise when making the movie. The film is a lot more stripped down and simpler version of the story. That, however, does not make it an easy movie.
It could be easy to treat this film just another preachy dystopian story that is anti-rich people. It would also be easy to dismiss it due to its ridiculous premise, as I did when I first saw the movie trailer. To do so would be understandable, but not really fair. The main story itself is rather blunt and unsubtle, yes. On the other hand, the movie is rich with satire and allegory that stretches beyond its â€œin a worldâ€ trappings. This is not in a world; this is the world. One character says that explicitly. Instead of taking a few negative elements of our socio-political reality and seeing what happens if we were to go too far in that direction, this movie takes various elements of our socio-political reality and shrinks them to the point where it is nearly impossible to feel subconsciously and still rather difficult to recognize unless one puts in the work. As a result, some things may not make sense in terms of narrative or character motivations, but they may make some sense if one tries to work them out on a larger thematic scale. Also, one could just conclude that absolutely everyone is crazy. I wonâ€™t try to analyze the metaphors and jokes here too much, since others have done better, it would make this post far too long, I would still miss a lot of stuff, and I would mess up a lot of stuff. I will say, though, that the last third of the movie has some bitter meta-commentary on the role that entertainment provides for the populace.
There is a reason why all of this started a year after the film was made (though roughly around the same time that it was released in the United States) instead of forty years in the future. Bong Joon-ho first thought of making this movie in 2005 or 2006, after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, but I would not be surprised if the Arab Spring was in the back of his mind as he was making the movie. The movie proper may have been set in 2031, but it is about now.
There are those who view this film as being Objectivist, either deliberately or inadvertently. There have also been attempts to view this film in a Marxist light and even Bong has said that there is a commentary on unchecked capitalism. I am not sure that I am personally ready to see this movie in either of those terms, though I feel that the religious devotion to Wilford, the starvation, and the scarcity of certain items seem to evoke societies like North Korea than anything else. That said, it could be my own American upbringing that makes it easy to separate the idea of capitalism from those other themes. Not all societies equate (or pretend to equate) capitalism with social mobility, democracy, or freedom. In the original British version of The Office, for example, most of the characters were resigned to the fact that where they were was about as high up as they were going to get. In South Korea, democracy did not immediately follow capitalism. The country after World War II was a miserable mess, and on the brink of collapse; the Korean War did not help matters. Politics were a sham, and social unrest was met with harsh force. It was not a dictatorship in the sense that the Federal Government demanding taxes to bring cattle to public land; this was real. If capitalism led to social mobility, then the cutthroat competition at all levels and in all aspects of society shut many out. Even democracy is still tainted with past oppression: a year before this film was released in Korea, the daughter of one of the countryâ€™s brutal dictators announced her bid for presidency and was later elected with 51.6% of the vote.
American fictional stories of dictatorship are based on fantasy and what ifs; cautionary tales of what might happen if we give up our individualism and humanity for the greater good. This movie is based on personal experience. This is not what might happen; it is what has happened and what is happening. Every year, that train finds its way to the same spot like a vicious cycle. If some of this paragraph sounds like something that I have typed before, it may be because the director of this movie also directed Memories of Murder,Â which I had talked about last August.
If you live in the United States and have not seen this film, you may have known about it primarily as the one that Harvey Weinstein tried to cut up before giving it a limited release. On the one hand, I am disappointed with how he and his company handled the movie. On the other hand, I realize that it was probably practically sound. A lot of Americans loved this movie, including myself. Yet, this is the type of movie that gets a cult following in this country. Despite the A-list actors and the top-notch action, this is not blockbuster material, at least for the United States.
The story itself, while simple on its surface, is hard to get through. The movie doubles down on its ridiculous premise by starting off with the unlikely scenario of a multinational global warming fight. If that made people groan in Pacific Rim (it made me groan in that movie), there is a chance that it would have a similar effect here. The movieâ€™s attempt to justify the train premise pretty much makes a mockery of the exposition dump and dares the audience to take it seriously in a segment that actually makes no sense if one actually breaks down what happens. There is little attempt to explain the mechanics of everyday life on the train, such as how many carriages do people normally use and pass through or how the train tracks keep from going bad. This is because promoting suspension of disbelief take a backseat to the allegory and satire that I had mentioned earlier. They sometimes overwhelm the actual narrative and lead to what some might consider to be plot holes or shoddy characterization. Unlike with supposed â€œturn off your brainâ€ type movies like Furious 7, this movie makes it quite easy to miss the forest for the trees and get distracted by things that do not make sense. If one can actually get engaged in the story, one can have a lot of fun. It is just a little difficult to get there. And if you get stuck on something, then everything can fall apart. And then youâ€™d all freeze and die.
There are other possible stumbling blocks to mainstream acceptance in the United States. This is an action movie with the bite of a horror movie and the bleakness of a piece of Indie Oscar Bait that doesnâ€™t win. More along the lines of the Christopher Nolan movies that did not make hundreds of millions of dollars than the ones that did. It is particularly so in the last third, where the narrative slows down to dwell on how bleak everything is. Koreans may eat this stuff up, but only certain parts of the American moviegoing public are fine with this. Post 9/11 America may have been more willing to see more grim, but they still need to have a clear sense of hope and reassurance at the end. The vision of hope at the end of this movie isâ€¦ermâ€¦it is ambiguous.
There is plenty of humor, and while it is fairly fine for the first part, after a while, it does not so much add needed levity as it does completely upset the tone and ranges from darkly comic to slapstick to absurdist. The acting is inconsistent, with some characters being low-key and others being broadly cartoonish. The action scenes are awesome, but more sad than celebratory. I believe that all of this was deliberate and I love the movie for it, but I understand why it would not work as a big movie in America. Perhaps if the movie cranked up the joke machine a bit more, then it would be considered a dark comedy along the lines of Dr. Strangelove, but I would imagine that even that would be a hard sell these days.
Apparently, Weinstein tried to edit the film before it was decided to give it a limited release. Some cuts here and there and more palatable exposition, perhaps. I donâ€™t think that that would have worked, as the narrative flaws will probably make even less sense with more explanation. While a toned-down version of the movie could maybe have gotten the teen crowd who have flocked to violent dystopian films that were based on novels, I doubt that that would have worked. Some of the more graphic acts of violence could be cut or obscured, but the tone behind them would not. And the last third would have had to been completely reworked. The DVD includes a 5-minute animated prologue about the events of 2014, and it is extremely violent and grim. I donâ€™t know if that was what Weinstein had in mind, but I doubt it. The short is available for free on Youtube.
This movie should have made more than $4.5 million in the United States theatrically, but I have doubts that it would have done much better with a wide release here. Well, maybe it would have done better in the United States if it had been released in the winter instead of in the middle of summer. Maybe $25 million would have been nice. I am just glad that it got released to the extent that I needed to drive only thirty minutes to the theater; many of the movies that I review here donâ€™t get a theatrical release in this country at all. Besides, it was the fourth largest market for this film anyways, and the movie did ultimately make back over twice its budget, mostly from South Korea. And, in any case, it fared much better domestically and globally than Equilibrium did. Maybe it will do better on home video, like Fight Club and other movies. It was a modest success on VOD, though not as big as thatâ€¦other movie with Korean characters.
Regardless of its current financial success or lack thereof, this movie is great. And it should be pretty easy to find. It is online, of course. It should be readily available in stores and libraries. If you have not seen it, I would highly recommend it. And if you have seen it, watch it again.
Ermâ€¦side note: although lagging far behind the United States and Japan, South Korea was still the third biggest market for the movie Frozen. It opened there in the month of January.
WTF ASIA 99: Pushpaka Vimanamu (India: 1987, approx. 130 minutes)
WTF ASIA 100: For Loveâ€™s Sake (Japan: 2012, approx. 135 minutes)
On the internet