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Sun June 29, 2014

In 'Snowpiercer,' A Never-Ending Train Ride And A Society Badly Off Track

Originally published on Sun July 6, 2014 9:50 pm

The world has frozen over in the movie Snowpiercer. Set after a climate change disaster, all the action happens aboard a train that has to keep circling the globe for its passengers to stay alive.

The movie itself is uniquely international: Snowpiercer is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. It's directed by a Korean auteur and stars Hollywood A-listers including Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris. The movie opened in South Korea last summer. Since then it has played all over the world, and certain Americans have been wildly impatient for Snowpiercer to open here.

What kinds of Americans, you ask? Well, film nerds, science fiction nerds, Tilda Swinton nerds and fans of director Bong Joon-ho.

Grady Hendrix, who co-runs the New York Asian Film Festival, says Bong's movies, such as 2003's Memories of Murder, masterfully subvert genres. "His serial killer movie was actually an amazing movie about Korean history but also delivered the thrills you want in a serial killer movie," he explains.

And Bong's 2006 movie The Host was both a sly critique of American intervention in Korea dating back to the Korean War — and about a giant monster eating people. The Host smashed South Korean box office records and became an international sensation.

So it was hardly a surprise when the director's next big action film — Snowpiercer — was immediately snapped up by Hollywood distributors Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

"Uncle Harvey. We had a long process," Bong wryly remembers during an interview at NPR West in Culver City.

Snowpiercer's U.S. release was delayed for months as Bong and Weinstein — known in the film world as Harvey Scissorhands — wrangled over Weinstein's insistence over cutting 20 minutes from the two-hour film and adding a voice-over. Bong adamantly refused. The international film community rallied behind Bong Joon-ho. Eventually, the Weinsteins agreed to release Snowpiercer intact.

"Their idea to simplify was a very silly one," Hendrix observes. "The movie is incredibly simple. It is a train. The poor people live in the back. The rich people live in the front. And the poor people in back want to get to the front."

Bong says an oppressed underclass rebelling against huge wealth gaps is not exactly science fiction right now. "[It's] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent," he says. "That's something that happens in other countries and also in Korea."

The film has been getting rave reviews, partly because of Bong's knack for keeping viewers off balance. Take a meditative, dreamlike scene where the freedom fighters pause for a snack in a train car that's also an aquarium and a sushi counter. (Of course, sushi is sort of shorthand for the preferred food of the 1 percent.)

"Outside the window, you can see the frozen ocean, where the fish inside the tanks used to swim," Bong says.

Before the ocean was ruined — partly to make this food. Such pointed, ironic juxtapositions are Bong's stock in trade.

"It's really about having fun with the audience," he explains. "People go to the movies with certain genre conventions in mind. They go to the movies to have certain expectations met. It's always fun to play around with those expectations, to deliver what they came to see, but also give them things they didn't expect."

Like a message about income inequality or environmental cataclysm — in a high-octane summer action flick. That's what Bong delivers — along with violence, explosions and special effects.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The world has frozen over in the new movie "Snow Piercer". It's set after a climate change disaster and all the action happens on a train which has to keep circling the globe for its passengers to stay alive. The movie itself is uniquely international. Snow piercer is based on a French comic book, directed by a Korean auteur and stars Hollywood A-lister's including Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris. The movie became a worldwide hit after opening in South Korea last summer. As part of NPR's summer series Book Your Trip, arts reporter Neda Ulaby explains why "Snow Piercer" took so long to come to the U.S.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Certain types of people have been waiting and waiting and waiting for "Snow Piercer" to open here. Film nerds, science-fiction nerds, Tilda Swinton nerds and fans of director Bong Joon-ho. Grady Hendrix is an Asian film expert who says Bong's movies masterfully subvert genre.

ULABY: Movies like 2003's "Memories Of Murder."

GRADY HENDRIX: His serial killer movie was actually a really amazing movie about Korean history, but it also delivered the thrills you want in a serial killer movie.

ULABY: Then in 2006, Bong's movie "The Host" was kind of a sly critique of American involvement in Korea dating back to the Korean War.

HENDRIX: But it was also about a giant monster eating people.

ULABY: "The Host" smashed Korean box office records and became an international sensation. So It was hardly a surprise when the director's next big action film, "Snow Piercer" was immediately snapped up by Hollywood distributors Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

BONG JOON-HO: (Through Translator) So, uncle Harvey we had a long process.

ULABY: Director, Bong Joon Ho, during a recent trip to LA said "Snow Pierce's" U.S. release was delayed for almost a year. That's because Harvey Weinstein, known as Harvey Scissorhands in the film world, wanted to cut out 20 minutes and add a voiceover. Bong adamantly refused.

JOON-HO: (Through Translator) A lot of people think that I'm a control freak. I don't necessarily think that. But I do have that tendency.

ULABY: The international film community rallied behind Bong Joon-Ho. And says Grady Hendrix, the Weinstein's eventually agreed to release "Snow Piercer" intact.

HENDRIX: Their idea to simplify it was a very silly one. The movie is incredibly simple, it is a train, the poor people live in the back, the rich people live in the front and the poor people in the back want to get to the front.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOW PIERCER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We're going to the front, come with us.

ULABY: An oppressed under classroom, rebelling against huge wealth gaps, says director Bong Joon-ho, is maybe not exactly science fiction, right now.

JOON-HO: Similar to occupy Wall Street, in terms of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. That is something that happens in other countries and also in Korea.

ULABY: In "Snow Piercer" Tilda Swinton embodies the 1 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOW PIERCER")

TILDA SWINTON: (As Mason) I belong to the front.

ULABY: She's a hierarchical zealot, all angles, furs and jewel, who lives to grind the underclass under her coat or heels.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOW PIERCER")

SWINTON: (As Mason) You belong to the tail. Know your place. Take your place.

ULABY: Of course the 99 percent soon start forcing their way to the front. "Snow Piercer" compels, says Grady Hendrix, partly for its wealth of voluptuous and surprising visual details.

HENDRIX: They encounter security guards who are wearing sort of black ski-masks and look threatening. But instead of having their eyeholes cut out in the ski-masks, they have mouth holes, which makes them far more surreal and menacing looking.

ULABY: That's how the film keeps viewers off-balance, constantly.

HENDRIX: There's this moment where they stop at a sushi.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOW PIERCER")

SWINTON: (As Mason) Do any of you feel like sushi?

ULABY: The freedom fighters are exhausted and filthy from battle but there they are at a luxurious sushi counter in a train car that's also a giant fish tank.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOW PIERCER")

SWINTON: (As Mason) You people are very lucky. This is only served twice in a year.

ACTOR: (As character) Why, not enough fish?

SWINTON: (As Mason)Oh, enough is not the criterion. Balance.

>>ULABY In our interview, the only time the director, Bong Joon-Ho switched to English was while talking about this scene.

JOON-HO: Yeah, taste of sushi. Taste of fish. In the moving train.

ULABY: Sushi is shorthand for the preferred food of the 1 percent.

JOON-HO: (Through translator) Outside the window you see the frozen ocean where the fish inside the tanks used to swim.

ULABY: Before the ocean was ruined, partly to make this food. Such pointed, ironic juxtaposition's are Bong Joon-Ho's stock in trade.

JOON-HO: (Through translator) And so it's really about just having fun with the audience, people go to the movies with certain genre conventions in mind and they go see movies to have certain expectations met. And so it's fun to play around with those expectations, to deliver what they came to see but also give them things they didn't expect.

ULABY: Like a message about income inequality or environmental cataclysm in a high-octane summer action flick. That's what Bong Joon-Ho delivers, along with violent explosions and special effects. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.