Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Yes, I go to Paris and spend some of my time seeing movies. Heck, when I was considering what to do with my vacation and was giving the City of Light some though, I checked to see what was going on and my eyes lit up when I saw Snowpiercer listed, and that maybe pushed me a fraction of a degree more on pulling the trigger.

It's not like this is a particularly egregious waste of time; if you don't drink or really party much at all, you've got to do something between when the sun goes down and bedtime, especially during these fairly cold days. And, besides, the French seem to really like movies. Go to Google's movie listing page and type Paris as the location; the sheer number of cinemas it pops up is mind-boggling.

Heck, when I decided to to check this one out, I almost missed it not because of having trouble navigating the Metro/RER system (I swear, I had to walk through four gates in one station when making a transfer), but because when I got to Forum des Halles - an immense underground shopping center - the first two times I tried following signs to la cinéma, I was brought to two other venues in the same mall. Similarly, walking along Les Champs-Elysées, I was often able to see the next movie theater from the one I was in.

(I must admit, that while it was kind of cool seeing a Korean movie about a giant train in a cinema called "Orient Express", I was kind of disappointed that it wasn't a theater dedicated to Asian films. That would have been sort of cool.)

As to why this movie, in particular, had me somewhat excited... I am a fan of Bong Joon-ho, having enjoyed all his movies from Barking Dogs Never Bite (I saw that with Director Bong in attendance at the Harvard Film Archive, and my review was quoted on the cover when it was finally released in America) to Mother, and on top of that, 2013 had been set up for three fine Korean directors making their English-language debuts: Kim Jee-woon with The Last Stand, Park Chan-wook with Stoker, and Bong with this. Unfortunately, Snowpiercer has been pushed to sometime in 2014 in America; The Weinstein Company has the distribution rights, which means Harvey Weinstein wants to cut out 20 minutes, and every world cinema site has been trying to parse every interview or test screening report to see how bad the cuts are or if they might not happen. So seeing it here meant that I got to see it in a theater, uncut.

It was a bit of an odd experience, though. Watching a movie in one's native language with subtitles creates a bit of a cognitive dissonance, in that I've trained myself to get dialogue from the text when it's there, so sometimes a situation like this has me first glancing at the subtitles, realizing that the characters are speaking English, and then sort of catching up. It seemed to flatten out the way people were talking, although that might also have been Bong directing people in a foreign language; Song Kang-ho did seem a bit looser, as if with his lines Bong was able to get what sounded best as opposed to clearest. I must admit to being glad that translation devices where pulled out fairly quickly; my experience watching Only God Forgives in Montreal and suddenly scrambling to remember my high-school French when characters started speaking Thai had me a bit worried here. Fortunately, my French was just good enough that I could more or less handle the subtitles from the only extended bit of French-subtitled Korean.

That does give me pause about what else I might want to see when I've got a free evening here - The Immigrant looks interesting, but I suspect Marion Cotillard co-starring means there might be a fair amount of unsubtitled French. Of course, I may just get too busy and not have time for the movies anyway. Well, after this one.

Snowpiercer (La Transperceneige)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2013 at UGC Orient Express #2 (first-run, DCP)

A Korean director making an English-language movie from a French graphic novel may seem like a random combination, but it's really not: Both Korean genre film and French bandes dessinées often blur genre lines and forms, while English certainly helps get even a modestly-budgeted film made and distributed. Thus we wind up with Snowpiercer, just as odd as director Bong Joon-ho's previous foray into sci-fi action (Korean monster movie The Host), but also just as exciting.

The high concept is out there: In 2014, an attempt to combat global warming backfired, plunging the world into a deadly new ice age. Fortunately, that's also the year Wilford Industries unveiled their "Snowpiercer" train system, which makes a complete circuit of the Earth every year, the perpetual-motion engine plowing through frozen obstructions. Seventeen-odd years later, Gilliam (John Hurt) and Curtis (Chris Evans), the unofficial leaders of the poor people at the tail end of the train, plot revolution, with Curtis and his young accomplice Edgar (Jamie Bell) planning to work their way to the front and seize control of the engine. To do that, they'll need to break security expert Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) out of the prison car, although he turns out to be addicted to "Kronol" and insists on bringing his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung) along. The group also includes Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose son was taken without explanation. Everyone would like a chance to stick it to Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), among others.

There's a long list of things in Snowpiercer that don't make any sense whatsoever, and not just because the film's American release could actually come after the mid-2014 disaster that kicks everything off. The logical contortions one must undertake in order to accept the premise are both reasonably well concealed and worth it, though, as the train is a striking metaphor for modern-day authoritarian states which have evolved a middle class but are still built upon oppression. That middle class serves as a buffer that, in this case, the revolutionaries must literally fight their way through.

Full review at EFC.

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