July 20, 2014

Snowpiercer: Bong Joon-ho Does Scifi a la Park Chan-wook

St. Teresa's The Interior Castle. Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There are many examples of spiritual journeys that take their protagonists through a series of bizarre rooms before delivering them to an inner chamber housing a great if hidden truth. For Bong Joon-ho, the rooms in Snowpiercer may be train cars but the quest remains the same: The hero -- or in this case, the cannibalistic antihero (Chris Evans) -- must navigate a succession of rooms, each with its unique challenges, each with its own queer millieu, before arriving at the font of wisdom. The engine room, as it were. Along the way, he'll pass through a well-guarded water room with a lady tyrant clownishly played by a buck-toothed Tilda Swinton, a Willy Wonka-esque school room overseen by a blindingly sunny, pregnant fascist (Alison Pill), a kitchen where cockroaches are turned into gelatinous bricks of protein, a greenhouse, a steam room, a nightclub, and so on. The final chamber -- the engine room -- is ironically the domain of a child-kidnapping God-like tyrant (Ed Harris). Shades of The Truman Show?

What's unusual is that once Ed Harris' character unveils the TRUTH, the epiphany occurs not for Curtis but for Yona (Ko Ah-sung), a seer who hasn't heard it and who, as apprentice to the train's master locksmith Min-Soo (Song Kang-ho), has spent much of the time in a drug-addled haze. Are we hallucinating this scifi pic's parade of celebs along with her, for there's also John Hurt as a steampunk Yoda, Jamie Bell as a second banana in the people's army and a sleepy-eyed Octavia Spencer as a mom out to get her kid back. You might also cite Park Chan-wook as a co-star. While he doesn't appear on screen, his imprint is apparent as producer: Snowpiercer is packed with the video-game violence that has caused some critics to label Park as a purveyor of gore porn. I've never felt that way but I do feel the recurring blood-splattering here proved a bit much. Bong usually finds his shocks in psychology.

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