Review: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer character poster - Chris Evans
Snowpiercer character poster – Chris Evans

I was recently in Korea on an amazing tour sponsored by the Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) and one of the fringe benefits of staying in the 5-star hotel they put us up in was getting a morning paper every day. It not only helped me stay up-to-date with the world but also let me know that the international – or at least the American – version of Snowpiercer (설국열차), Bong Joon Ho’s (봉준호) new epic film based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, would be different than the Korean version. Apparently, it was going to be 20 minutes shorter. Oh no!

Since Snowpiercer was on my “must watch” list, and has been since I first heard about it almost a year ago, I immediately started to figure out how I could fit watching it into my tight schedule. Turns out Incheon Airport has a movie theatre so I was in luck, I could watch Snowpiercer just before I stepped on the plane back to Toronto.

Synopsis

Snowpiercer is a sci-fi action film set in a future that is suffering from an ice age that killed pretty much all life on the planet. The film gets its name from the train, “Snowpiercer”, which has the only survivors aboard, and travels around the world, apparently circumnavigating once a year.

Aboard the train, a class system has developed, with better conditions – and food – the further forward on the train. The back of the train is a nightmare and the inhabitants living there periodically attempt a coup. The majority of the film is about the most recent coup attempt where they attempt to seize control of the engine and confront the mythical creator – and engineer – of the train.

**Warning: Spoiler Alert** There is no way to properly write a review without mentioning some things that happen in the film.

My Thoughts on Snowpiercer

I loved it. Want more details on why? Okay. ^^

Now I was expecting a lot, in fact of the three Korean films – or films by Korean directors – that came out this year in English, Snowpiercer was the one that I was looking forward to the most. First of all, I’ve enjoyed all of Bong Joon Ho’s other films (I’ve seen all but his first), and love how his films are so character-driven. The other reason is I simply love sci-fi action films. I just do.

And it didn’t disappoint. From the moment the film started until the credits rolled, I was so engrossed I didn’t even realize I’d been sitting still for two hours. It was dark, with more violence that I expected – including two scenes, a punishment scene and a fight scene – that I almost had to do the girl thing and cover my eyes . There was stellar acting from the whole cast – I was especially impressed by Chris Evans who is definitely more than a pretty face, and as usual Song Kang Ho (송강호) was great. And like all of Bong Joon Ho’s films, it’s not just a film, not just entertainment, but it also offers insight and social commentary.

I found it interesting that there was really only two classes on the train… The poor at the back – who were sharing very cramped quarters, eating crap (literally) and seemed to be the only ones who were subject to any rules – and the elite at the front – who all seemed to be crazy or stoned out of their minds. Unless you count those working on the train – the soldiers/police, Tilda Swinton’s character, etc. – as a middle class.

Dark, different, surprising and at times, a little over-the-top crazy (the classroom scene springs to mind); Snowpiercer is well worth the price of admission.

News article about the possible changes to Snowpiercer
News article about the possible changes to Snowpiercer

My thoughts on cutting 20 minutes

Okay, this next little bit is a rant – and one that I’ve told to every person I’ve talked to since I’ve seen the film – so I’ll try to keep it short.

First of all, I’m super curious why The Weinstein Company thinks it’s necessary to cut 20 minutes from the film. It’s like 90% in English so it’s not like English-speaking audiences aren’t going to understand the dialogue. It’s based on a French graphic novel so it’s not like there’s a lot of Korean cultural references that non-Koreans won’t understand. And it’s a sci-fi action/thriller, not rocket science… Americans really aren’t that dumb. [Side note: I’m not saying Americans are stupid at all, just referencing the reasoning behind the cuts.]

The film is 126 minutes, which is neither short nor exceptionally long, and I stayed interested and engaged for its entirety. I have no idea where they would make cuts or which sections are deemed too difficult for Americans to understand but personally, I think any cuts will simply detract from the more complex details that raise Snowpiercer above a regular action flick. And from what I’ve read… that sounds like what is going to happen. They’re going to use the cuts to cut out the parts that raise Snowpiercer from your run-of-the-mill action thriller, and turn it into an ordinary summer blockbuster. Boo!

Like I said above, I watched it in a theatre in Korea and I’m certainly not fluent in Korean (my Korean is low intermediate at best) and yet I had absolutely no trouble understanding the film, even as tired as I was from the end of a long, busy and super fun trip. I really enjoyed it, and highly recommend it. Go see it and if you have the chance, see the Korean version, the version that the director wanted to show the world has to be better – and more complete – than the shortened version the international distributor wants simply so it can be “understood by audiences in Iowa… and Oklahoma”. Not sure why those two states are being called out for being stupid but I’d be pissed if I was from there. And that is a quote, not my words, originally from Twitch but also what I read in the Korea Joonggang Daily (I brought the article home because I knew I’d write about it & that’s what you see in the picture).

Postscript: So after I wrote this article, Snowpiercer screened at Deauville Festival (in France) where Bong Joon Ho said in a press conference that the 20 minute cut is just a rumour, that he’s still in discussion with The Weinstein Company about the cuts for the North American audiences. For more info, click here. However, there’s still no release date for North America. 

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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