‘Snowpiercer’ amazes visually but story falls short

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‘Snowpiercer’ amazes visually but story falls short

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Left: Rich children study in a classroom train car in “Snowpiercer.” Right: Song Kang-ho plays a security expert. Provided by CJ Entertainment

With opening day looming for Bong Joon-ho’s hotly anticipated “Snowpiercer,” Korean cinephiles are anxiously wondering how the big-concept, big-budget blockbuster will be received, both in Korea and abroad.

Bong is one of Korea’s top directors, and his last attempt at science fiction, the 2006 creature feature “The Host,” rewrote nearly all the country’s box office records.

Bong’s colleagues have recently tried their hands at Hollywood - Kim Jee-woon with “The Last Stand” and Park Chan-wook with “Stoker” - to lukewarm results, so many wonder how Bong compares.

“Snowpiercer” certainly has more substance than the projects of Kim and Park. Taken from the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” Bong has spent nine years bringing this story to the big screen, and his dedication shows.

It is a postapocalyptic tale, set after an ill-fated attempt to prevent global warming, turns Earth to ice. All that is left alive on the frozen planet are the people traveling on a huge train circling the continents on a gigantic track, continually running to prevent it from freezing over.

The train is divided rigidly by class, with the rich and pampered in the front, and the poor and hopeless in the filthy back carriages.

The $40 million movie is also Bong’s “least Korean” work to date, and, while not an art-house movie, it’s not really your typical blockbuster either, which puts the film in a peculiar position.

“Snowpiercer” begins 17 years after the train started its endless journey. A team of heroic upstarts in the back - headed by Curtis (Chris Evans), who is joined by his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) and desperate mom Tanya (Octavia Spencer) - have grown tired of being treated like dirt, so make a bid to meet the enigmatic commander of the train, Wilford (Ed Harris), to change things.

To help them on their difficult quest across compartments, they enlist the train’s security engineer, Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho), who’s been imprisoned in a coffin-like cell.

Opposing them is the pure-evil spokeswoman for the rich, Mason (Tilda Swinton).

As the group passes through each compartment toward the front, the film paints a clear picture of the ridiculousness of humanity, demanding class hierarchy even on a journey without an end, in a world that’s already ended. In some ways, the class divisions compare to “The Hunger Games,” with the filthy poor and the absurd flamboyance of the rich.

To be sure, the film’s criticisms of the divide between those with power and those without is a theme we’ve all seen before and can relate to.

But the high point of “Snowpiercer” is definitely its set design, which is incredibly detailed and just amazing. Each class on the train is a totally different world, from the dazzling opulence of first class - with its greenhouse, sauna and parties - to the “tail,” where people are treated like rats, are fed disgusting “protein bars” and have no showers.

The biggest problem with the movie is that the main characters just don’t come together as an ensemble. Character development is definitely not the film’s strong suit. Each bizarre individual sticks out and feels as disjointed as the carriages they are trekking through.

You do have to give props, though, for Bong’s choice of actors. Combining actors from around the world really helps give the sense that this train contains the last bits of humanity. However, given the material, it is frustrating that so much potential lies untapped.

The scenes between Song, who only speaks in Korean, and Evans, speaking in English, inject some humor into the story. But with their communications coming through Google’s Babel Fish-esque translations, it’s hard to feel empathy for or solidarity with the characters.

Both actors are excellent leads, but together with Evans’ melodramatic urgency and Song’s distanced attitude, they just don’t mesh.

Ironically, Bong’s portrayal of the two Korean characters in the story sometimes veers into Hollywood-like cliche - unintelligible, kooky Asians, who are far too much one-note characters.

The movie definitely has the power to draw viewers in with its display of strange and bizarre visuals, but as the characters move from one compartment to the next, the characters seem to act more like spectators than real people that you understand and feel for.

There is sense of urgency in all films like this that comes from focusing on the task at hand; the mystery that drives the story to its conclusion. But in “Snowpiercer,” this is where Bong comes up short. There are so many characters and events that could have benefited from a deeper examination, and movie leaves you with more questions than when you entered.

But even mediocre Bong Joon-ho is still Bong Joon-ho. And this is some visionary science fiction. Between those two elements, “Snowpiercer” is guaranteed to find itself a cult following around the world. Box office domination, however, is another matter.

The film opens Thursday all across Korea.


By CARLA SUNWOO [carlasunwoo@joongang.co.kr]
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