The first English-language film of South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, “Snowpiercer” is an apocalyptic, futuristic allegory with many ideological levels. Even if the movie, based on a French graphic novel, occasionally goes off the track, it is a riveting film that offers yet more proof of the director’s considerable talent. For a movie to be this gripping is an achievement in its own right, since we’ve seen so many apocalyptic fantasies already. Bong deserves kudos for managing to bring something new to this well-trod cinematic terrain.
In 2017, Planet Earth froze as the result of a failed attempt to slow down global warming. Its population was eradicated, except for a few hundred people who found refuge aboard a train, which hurtles through the frozen landscapes during the whole of the film and sometimes bursts through the ice on the tracks. The world has been reduced to a speeding train, and the movie likewise speeds ahead relentlessly. It is all about movement, both physically – the plot progresses from the back of the train through its many cars to the engine – and in the ideological sense, as the basis for revolution.
Trains in cinema have often appeared as allegories for film itself, and this is true of Bong’s movie as well. However, unlike other pictures set wholly or partly on trains, in this one we don’t see out through the windows, which resemble film frames as they pass by us. The windows in this case are covered, to conceal from the passengers the cold, dead world outside. It is only for brief moments that Bong’s camera moves out of the train to show it to us as it speeds through the frozen scenery; we also get to see what happened to seven passengers who left and tried to survive outside in the cold. This is done in a beautiful shot, which underscores the fact that “Snowpiercer” – a relentless action picture with enough blood and gore for more than one movie – also has a poetic side that deepens it and surprises us just as we least expect it.
The world has become a train hurtling nowhere; it circles the world over and over, because stopping means that the last survivors on earth will die; the train is the world. Owned by a corporation named after Wilford (Ed Harris), the tycoon who runs it from his solitary perch all the way up by the engine, it is divided by class. Hundreds of poor people are crammed together in the back, living off bars of protein that look like chocolate bars, but whose true, repulsive origins I won’t reveal here. The scenes set in the back cars, which are manned by black-clad soldiers, bring the Holocaust to mind, and I say this without hesitation because “Snowpiercer” as a whole is filled with allusions to genocide and other horrors that preceded the earth’s icy demise. The Holocaust connotations are especially strong in the scene showing how the children who are born on the train (the movie is set 17 years after the world froze and its refugees embarked on their endless journey) are torn from the arms of their mothers, who are left with nothing but a sketch of their children, which they use to try and find them.
There have been previous failed attempts at revolution aboard the train, and now a new initiative is forming in the back, where a group of would-be rebels plot to reach the engine and seize control of it. This is, of course, a movement with symbolic value, turning “Snowpiercer” into a political allegory of class warfare, whose primary target is the tycoon who runs the world. The reluctant leader of the uprising is Curtis (Chris Evans), who does not think he has what it takes to lead a revolution but joins the mission anyway, along with his young protégé, Edgar (Jamie Bell). He also relies on the guidance of Gilliam (John Hurt), his elderly mentor, and on the knowledge kept in the drugged-out brain of Namgoong (Song Kang-Ho, one of South Korea’s biggest movie stars). The latter has a daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-Sung), who is 17 (a number that recurs in the movie and has some kind of symbolic meaning that I have no way of figuring out) and never got to see the world before it froze.
On one level, “Snowpiercer” follows the birth of a leader, but where a standard Hollywood movie would have placed this process at the center in the best tradition of the American cult of masculinity, Bong does not make a big deal of it. Curtis takes the job – and he does it. There to suppress the uprising is Mason, Wilford’s frightening yet ridiculous representative, played by a grotesquely attired Tilda Swinton (currently also appearing on Israeli screens in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” in another role that has her almost completely disguised). Her eccentric appearance stresses the film’s oscillation between the real and the symbolic, and one of its main achievements is the tremendous skill with which this oscillation is handled.
On their way to the engine, while battling Wilford’s army, the rebels cross through the train’s many cars, each a kind of alternate universe that represents a rung on the movie’s social ladder. One car, filled with flowers, looks like a lounge in an exclusive club; another is a disco where upper-class youths have wild parties; there is even a car where the children of the elite study. Their young, blond teacher (Alison Pill) sports a constant smile, and her earnest, docile charges seem as though they emerged from a British prep school that churns out young zombies.
“Snowpiercer” is a smart, inventive picture, even if at times the plot becomes somewhat vague and hard to follow. Clearly, this is a unique and distinctive work that attests yet again to Bong Joon-Ho’s gifts. He is not only one of South Korea’s premier filmmakers, but one of the most interesting directors working today. “Snowpiercer” may not be as fine as some of his previous pictures – the thriller “Memories Of Murder,” the brilliant horror film “The Host,” or the excellent suspense melodrama “Mother.” Nevertheless, although less focused and concentrated than they were, it still casts a large shadow over most American-made futuristic action films, whose flaws it brings into glaring relief. At its best, South Korean cinema displays a creative freedom that subverts and beats the formulas of popular Hollywood filmmaking. That is true of “Snowpiercer,” a film that breathes new life into the action genre and whose last shot will stay with me for a long time to come.
Tilda Swinton on 'Only Lovers Left Alive,' 'Snowpiercer,' and Being a 'Very Lazy Individual'
This weekend, get ready to fall in love.
"Only Lovers Left Alive," the latest oddball concoction from American auteur Jim Jarmusch ("Mystery Train" & "Ghost Dog"), is a flawless jewel of a movie -- a sweeping love story about two disaffected vampires, named, of course, Adam and Eve. As played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton they are the kind of creatures of the night that you are just dying to hang out with.
We were granted an audience with the queen, a.k.a. Tilda Swinton, at this year's SXSW Film Festival, where the movie played to a rapturous audience response. Talking to Swinton, even for a few minutes, gives you a euphoric high -- she is so thoughtful and precise and emotionally articulate (things that, it goes without saying, most actors are not). It's hard to not want to spend a lifetime just chatting with her (the bloodsucking aspect of a vampiric partnership with Swinton is somewhat less appealing).
We talked about what brought her to this project, what it was like working with the endlessly charming Hiddleston, and discuss what it was like to be a part of Wes Anderson's recent "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and the upcoming films by Terry Gilliam and Bong Joon-Ho, whose "Snowpiercer" was fraught with problems after North American distributors the Weinsteins refused to release the film in its original form. Settle in, grab a nice warm cup of blood, and enjoy.
Did he give you more biographical information about your character?
An initial germ of the idea was a great book by Mark Twain called "The Diary of Adam and Eve," which he put me in touch with. And that's a beautiful thing. Funnily enough, we've come back closer to it in the film that we finally made. But that was the initial spark of the idea. We really didn't talk about it for several years. But looking back at the final film, it really holds that energy -- it's a beautiful book, a very light piece by Mark Twain, about a really grumpy Adam, very much down, and this total space cadet creature who came out of his side who is saying, "Oh, I want to look at the stars." That was the beginning of the energy of the two characters and we just built it up from there, really. It was always going to be Detroit. And at a certain point it was going to be Rome. Then it switched and became Tangiers.
Did he ever lay it out like, "This was the last 100 years of your character's life?"
You know, it's awful to say, but we've had so many conversations over such a long time, so I don't know. We've talked it through, we've chewed that cud for eight years. But what we know is that Adam is quite young, maybe 500 years old, and she's really old, like 3,000 years old. She's a druid.
Hiddleston is obviously the other half of this equation.
He is indeed.
What was it like working with him? Because he came in fairly late, right? Initially, Michael Fassbender was cast in the role.
It all sort of fell into place when Tom arrived, really. You often feel this with such a long project. It's like a band. And you have to get the band together and then you record it. All of the pieces were not right for a long time. Then he came on board and it flew. We actually shot it fairly fast. But he was a delight. He's my friend and I loved it.
Did you guys do any exercises? It must be hard to simulate a love affair that has been going on for hundreds of years.
Exercises! Well, we worked a lot together, the three of us, we had a long pre-production phase where we just hung out together and talked and talked and talked and talked. One of the aspects that we wanted to show was a long, long relationship that remains together because they're so into each other and they're so communicative with each other and they talk all the time. I think it's relatively unusual to see a long relationship on film that's not about people getting together. There's a tendency to show how people get together but then it's the end. You don't see people who are really into a relationship, going through that stuff. And going through it not by giving each other loving glances and being very loving, but talking through it and sharing a kind of intellectual inquiry and being into each others' brains as well as into each others bodies.
We talked a lot about that -- their friendship and why they're still together. And we came up with the fact that why they're still together is because they dig each other, even though they're so different. That's the other thing, in reference to the Mark Twain, that's such an important grain to the film, to say that you don't have to be like somebody to really love them and to be their couple. You can be a couple with someone who's really dissimilar and that in fact might be why it works. Just that feeling of being interested in someone's difference to you and being able to bring your difference to bear in order to help them live their life.
Do you have any favorite on-screen vampires?
Christopher Lee was probably my first heartthrob. We referenced, in our conversations, pretty much all the vampire films we've ever seen from "Nosferatu" onwards. But we were really interested in showing the meat and potatoes of them living. Not the drama of them going and biting people but just them hanging out and living and surviving and negotiating their relationship with one another and their relationships with Marlow and Eva. We wanted it to be a little like a documentary.
If we can talk about "Snowpiercer" for a minute, I'm so excited that the uncut version is coming out, and I know that you really championed that version. Did he call you and say that he did it or...?
No, I was there! No, we were very, very hopeful that the distributors would see the light and they have and we are thrilled and we congratulate them in doing so. It was our battle. It was our thing.
Would you do another movie with Bong Joon-Ho?
Yes. We are developing something else.
Can you talk about that at all?
No. I'm not allowed to. But don't worry.
What made you sign on for "Snowpiercer"?
He was always a filmmaker I was fascinated by. And then I met him and we just loved each other and wanted to find something to work on. It didn't feel like there was anything in "Snowpiercer," and then we kind of made it so.
Was your character not in the French comic book?
No. It's a bit of an invention. Or rather an adaptation. I can't really say more. It's an invention.
You've done so many characters and so many projects. What are you still dying to do as an actor?
I'm not dying to do anything as an actor. Every time I make a film, I intend to not perform again, seriously. And the only thing that brings me forward into something else is when, either I bring something up or somebody else says, "Come on let's work on this," and I just get my curiosities tickled again. So I don't have any. I'm not planning anything else. I'm developing projects with people, but things that I'm not necessarily in. I don't have any desires as an actor. I don't know what actors dream about. I suppose they dream about parts.
So, you don't want to be a pirate?
Well, in the right hands... It's my task to have no dreams. I'm just a very lazy individual who is living my life and having a great time and then occasionally will get whipped up into some ridiculous game with a playmate. But it's not an adult pursuit for me. I'm not an actor who has plans or ambitions, and I never did.