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After a failed global-warming experiment, a post-apocalyptic Ice Age has killed off nearly all life on the planet. All that remains of humanity are the lucky few survivors that boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, powered by a sacred perpetual-motion engine. A class system has evolved aboard the train, fiercely dividing its population—but a revolution is brewing. The lower-class passengers in the tail section stage an uprising, moving car-by-car up toward the front of the train, where the train's creator and absolute authority resides in splendor. But unexpected circumstances lie in wait for humanity’s tenacious survivors... (From RADiUS TWC’s official synopsis)

 Snowpiercer
In the late 1990s, Korean cinema and K-Pop musical icons (think Rain and Psy) made a splash in the Western world. This era is generally referred to as the ‘Korean Wave’ (or Hánliú) and developed the worldwide reputations of a number of filmmakers, including Ryoo Seung-wan ( Crying Fist, 2005), Jang Joon-hwan ( Save the Green Planet, 2003), and Park Kwang-hyun ( Welcome to Dongmakgol, 2005). The movement’s three major players – Park Chan-Wook ( Oldboy, 2003), Kim Jee-woon (or Ji-woon, A Bittersweet Life), and Bong Joon-ho – all made English language debuts in 2013. Park and Kim have both dabbled in several different genres and styles, but their personalities were always properly represented in their work. Kim stuck to his strengths as an action film director and made a dopey, but fun Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle ( The Last Stand). Park stuck to his strengths as an intellectual visualist and made a beautiful, understated thriller ( Stoker).

Bong’s career isn’t as easily defined. Like his contemporaries, he immersed himself in a number of genres and infused them with breakneck tonal shifts, but the only definitive common link between his films is a subversive nature. His second film, Memories of Murder (2003), defied the expectations of a serial killer drama by extending the narrative and focusing on the effects of criminal procedure on the detectives, instead of the visceral impacts of the murders. His third film, The Host (2006) redefined the Japanese kaiju tradition for modern Korean audiences, while retaining the environmental and social subtexts that characterized the original Gojira. And his fourth movie, Mother (2009), cast a middle-aged woman in the unlikely role of an amateur sleuth and anti-action hero. His English-language debut – only his fifth film as a director, compared to Park’s nine and Kim’s seven (not including shorts and anthologies) – is Snowpiercer.

 Snowpiercer
Snowpiercer is based on Le Transperceneige, a popular comic book (or ‘graphic novel,’ as the film’s producers would prefer you called it) from French author Jacques Lob with subsequent collections by Benjamin Legrand and writer/artist Jean-Marc Rochette. The basic story owes a large debt to Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou’s genre-defining sci-fi masterpiece, Metropolis. In that film, an elaborate class system is built into a towering city with the poorest toiling below as the rich and privileged lead extravagant, carefree lives atop lavish skyscrapers. Lob’s comic takes the concept and literally tilts it onto its side, creating a horizontal class system, where the elite live it up at the front of an impossibly long train, while the salt of the earth is held under hobnail boots at the tail end. Lang & Harbou’s high fantasy concepts were underlined by real-world political subtexts and influenced by familiar mythological and Biblical sources. Snowpiercer also draws from theological themes and does not hide its socially conscious message.

Bong’s script, which was co-written by Kelly Masterson ( Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), is an adaptation of the first collection of Lob’s comic (which is, note, the only collection I read – I have no idea where the story goes after this arc). Not unexpectedly, the movie only uses its source as a jumping-off point for a much more Bong-friendly (no pun intended) and unique narrative. The comic tells the straight-forward story of a single ‘tail-ender’s’ journey to the front of the train, where he learns about the vast differences in social classes (more appear here than in the movie) and (spoiler alert) eventually finds himself taking over engineering duties (end spoiler alert). Besides introducing a group contingent to the journey from third class to first class, adding a more accessible and modern political subtext, Bong deletes a central love story. In the comic, the main character develops a quick and conventional romantic relationship with a compassionate front-ender, while Bong surrounds his hero with supportive relationships that are (as far as we know) entirely platonic. This is consistent with Bong’s other films, which almost always forego traditional romance in favour of familial relationships – Memories of Murder revolves around a brotherhood of detectives, The Host is built on the strength of an unusual extended family, and Mother involves a parent that will do anything for her adult child. Bong also updates the frozen wasteland’s origin story, turning it from the side effect of a world war to humanity’s failed attempt at curing global warming. This renders the whole thing more relevant to 21st century viewers (the comic was published in 1982).

 Snowpiercer
Here in the states, Snowpiercer’s fantastic reviews were overshadowed by its crummy treatment by The Weinstein Company. Harvey Weinstein is notorious for altering/editing Asian movies for western audiences, often claiming that our cultures are too incompatible for us to understand and appreciate their art/entertainment. This is inherently insulting to both cultures – westerners are too dumb to get it and Asians are too weird for worldwide appeal. Despite culling such a negative reputation and losing money on almost every acquisition, Harvey Scissorhands continues to snag the distribution rights to foreign films, only to maul them with unnecessary alterations. When Bong refused the cuts (after initially being diplomatic about the situation) and stateside fans revolted, Weinstein conceded, but dialed it back to a limited release, seemingly to punish the filmmaker.

Though the release was botched on an epic scale, The Weinstein Company’s trailers were smart to not reveal too much about the movie. The story is big and rich with interesting mythology and characters, but, as I’ve demonstrated, it’s standard enough that any viewer familiar with the tropes could probably guess most of the narrative twists. I’d even argue that someone could systematically spoil every plot point without spoiling the experience of the film, because Bong does such unexpected and unique things with tone and imagery. The trailers hinted at the wacky conceptual shifts hidden beneath the more traditionally sci-fi dystopian imagery, but mostly stuck to the grim ‘n’ gritty first-act drama. Theoretically, the ads held back on the weird stuff because the Weinsteins were afraid it would turn North American audiences off, but it all worked out for the best.

 Snowpiercer
And that weird streak almost entirely belongs to Bong. In a reversal of the industry standard, the source comic is the more conventional version of the story. For example, the comic briefly establishes a religious order that had developed aboard the train, but Bong makes the concept the bedrock of his antagonists’ belief system, turning them from apathetic bureaucrats and xenophobic soldiers into dangerous zealots that believe what they preach and who drill their children with their dogma. The director also makes a major distinction between the train’s class structures. The comic’s drab, sullen imagery is punched up with fantastical production design from Ondrej Nekvasil ( The Illusionist) and outrageous costumes from Catherine George ( Reservation Road). Bong and his designers paint the front-enders as clowns that base their lifestyles on second-hand knowledge of what rich people did before the world froze over. This idea is perfectly embodied by Tilda Swinton and her unconscionable depiction of the train’s second in command, Mason. Bong has definite rapport with all of the actors, despite the language barrier and brings out some wonderful performances, but Swinton is like the film’s spirit animal – a gnarly, toothy blowhard that believes in the cause, but not enough to risk her life. In a perfect world, she’d be the talk of the town, come award season.

It’s possible, even likely, that the film’s odd streak would’ve kept it from being a complete blockbuster success stateside if it had been given a wider release, but, given the surprise popularity of Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s just as likely that the eccentricities would’ve been appreciated. At the very least, the imaginative and impactful action sequences have mainstream appeal. Bong, who proved his competence with cinematic action and digital effects when he made The Host, considers the train’s confined spaces and uses the limitations to his advantage while designing the frantic, brutal, close-quarters combat. He risks over-obscuring the impact with shaking cameras, frantic zooms, and lack of light, but the restraints work, thanks to expert editing and camera placement.

 Snowpiercer

Video


Snowpiercer was shot on traditional 35mm film and is presented in 1.78:1, 1080p video on this Blu-ray release (slightly cropped from its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio). The film source gives the movie a nice, grainy texture, while the clarity of this transfer ensures that the grain doesn’t overwhelm the fine details. The early parts of the film are very dark and Bong and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo use a lot of pin-pointed focus to create a sense of shifting depth throughout the film, both of which lead to additional challenges, but the vital highlights and complex patterns remain crisp throughout. These scenes are also desaturated and almost duotoned between blue-green backdrops and orange-green flesh tones. These limited, slightly muddy palettes are sharply contrasted against the vivid colours of Tilda Swinton’s garish costumes. As the heroes make their way to the front of the train, the lighting schemes get brighter, the compositions get cleaner, and the colours become more vivid and intricate. The focus (usually creating either shallow backgrounds or blurry foregrounds) produces some blown-out edges and overlapping hues, but the general effect is clean and most of the colour blends and gradations are smooth. Black levels are strong and compression effects are basically non-existent (yet the darker, grainier scenes are a smidge blocky).

 Snowpiercer

Audio


Snowpiercer took so long to get a release stateside that I seriously considered buying the French Blu-ray release from Wild Side Video. I only hesitated when I discovered that the disc didn’t have an English subtitle option. For the most part, Snowpiercer is an English-language film – Bong even includes in-film handheld translation devices for the two Korean-speaking actors (superstar Song Kang-ho and his Host co-star Go Ah-sung) – but there are a handful of interactions that require subtitles for anyone limited to an English vocabulary. This Blu-ray has subtitles. It also features one hell of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Snowpiercer doesn’t quite have the budget to compete with Hollywood blockbusters in terms of visual effects (the digitally-enhancements are limited to a few key sequences), but it certainly has a studio-level mix. The sound designers don’t overwhelm the track with a constant stream of blaring noise, but they do keep the various channels very busy. Even the low-key, dialogue-heavy scenes are brimming with directional vocal effects and the incessant rumble and squeak of the train. Insert shots of the train piercing snow and ice are big and loud, though not quite as impressive as the action sequences with their intricate splats, thunks, clangs, and gunshots.  Marco Beltrami’s super brassy and industrial-infused score is awesomely bass-heavy, crisp, and finely separated into its various instrumental elements.

 Snowpiercer

Extras


The Weinsteins might have sabotaged any chance Snowpiercer had for box-office success, but they (and Anchor Bay) didn’t skimp on the extras, including the stuff previously available on the aforementioned French Blu-ray, along with a number of brand new supplements:
Disc 1:
  • Critics’ group commentary, featuring James Rocchi (MSN Movies), William Goss (Austin Chronicle), Drew McWeeny (Hitfix.com), Jennifer Yamato (Deadline), and Peter S. Hall (Movies.com), hosted by Scott Weinberg


 Snowpiercer
Disc 2:
  • Transperceneige: From the Blank Page to the Black Screen (54:30, HD) – A French language making-of documentary directed by Jesus Castro-Ortega. It begins with a look at the original comic (complete with artist/writer interviews and nice ‘motion-comic’ images), then goes on to trace the film’s early production, mostly from Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette’s point of view. This includes adaptation (technically, the Korean translation Bong read had been a bootleg), Legrand and Rochette set visits/cameo appearances, production design (Rochette drew many of the illustrations that appear in the film), and a special screening of the finished film.
  • The Birth of Snowpiercer (15:10, HD) – A Korean EPK that includes cast & crew interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and some production design images.
  • The Characters (13:10, HD) – Further interviews with the cast & crew from the Korean EPK, concerning the characters, specifically.
  • Animated prologue (4:30, HD)
  • Chris Evans & Tilda Swinton on Snowpiercer (4:40, HD) – The Weinstein Company’s EPK
  • The Train Brought to Life: Behind the Scenes of a Special Screening (8:10, HD) – Footage from an outdoor screening by Alamo Drafthouse and a follow-up Q&A with Drafthouse’s Tim League.
  • Concept art galleries


 Snowpiercer

Overall


As far as I’m concerned, Snowpiercer is still the best movie of 2014 (going by US release dates, I suppose) and I hope that this Blu-ray release will help perpetuate the positive reputation it deserves after being systematically dumped by The Weinstein Company. The gritty image quality is spectacular, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is demo-worthy, and the extras include an insightful critics’ commentary, an unusual and engrossing behind-the-scenes documentary, and a nice collection of concept art.

 Snowpiercer

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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