Wednesday 4 August 2021

On demand: "Snowpiercer"

In the wake of The Host's global success and before Parasite's international triumph, Bong Joon Ho was courted and eventually signed up by Harvey Weinstein to make his English-language debut. 2013's Snowpiercer was an unhappy project to assemble, by all accounts: after intervening several times in post-production - and being carefully batted away by his director - Weinstein afforded the finished work only a belated, begrudging release, and no release whatsoever in the UK. Perhaps both parties knew what they had on their hands: an openly Marxist fable, drawn from a French graphic novel and depicting the class struggle aboard a train bulleting around a world in the grip of a second Ice Age, Snowpiercer seems to fold the ongoing, offscreen tension between management and labour into its own front-and-centre storytelling. Guided by an extra-wisened John Hurt, Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer are among the would-be revolutionaries seeking to overturn the train's repressive social order; Bong's lucky charm Song Kang-ho is the drug-addled safecracker they entrust with getting them from steerage to first class; Tilda Swinton the resident queen bee, apparently styled after Margaret Thatcher, yet with an overbite, spectacles and broad Yorkshire accent that's pure Victoria Wood (or Aardman). For all the behind-the-scenes turbulence, the production they find themselves in runs on rails; narratively, there may be no straighter line in 21st century cinema. Our heroes begin the film at the very back of the train, in gloom and grime, and scene by scene they fight or think their way through to the front engine and a final confrontation with the mysterious "Wilford". (I'm sure some blogosphere nabob will have already nailed down the echoes of The Wizard of Oz - no bad influence - with Wilford as the Wiz, the Swinton character as the Wicked Witch, and an elevated level of gatekeeping in between.)

The characterisation is refreshingly minimal: these are briskly sketched movers-and-shakers, burdened by precious little of the baggage the movies have recently started to pile onto their Batmen and Batwomen. Bong's focus looks to have been on keeping the scenery changing around them. To give Weinstein some due, he evidently forked out a fair old sum on workspaces for his employees, which makes his reluctance to recoup the expense theatrically seem more perverse yet: we pass at breathless speed through onboard kitchens, nursaries (where we find a chilling Alison Pill in the role of Stepford schoolmarm), aquariums, solariums and nightclubs, stopping only to note how this society has inculcated a certain, self-sustaining set of values in its populace. We go up in the world as the movie goes on, yet for once, this isn't just passing spectacle; rather, everything this camera witnesses accumulates into a vision of a world converted into a grinding machine so as to preserve the status quo. (I watched the film for the first time in the middle of the pandemic, and it helped me better understand just why things felt so eerily quiet at the beginning of lockdown.) That mobility - the search for bypasses and backchannels, for ways around and ways out - is by now a recognisable directorial trait. For all his facility with pausable, individual frames, rendered as striking in their simplicity (and yet as loaded with meaning) as the best comic-book panels, Bong is one of the few contemporary filmmakers with any kind of a feel for how to keep a motion picture moving. The pre-pandemic progression of Parasite - which set similar themes and ideas circulating around an entirely static location - would provide further proof of this polite radical's own ability to outrun, outthink and overthrow any order Hollywood (and its Weinsteins) might still seek to impose on its subjects.

Snowpiercer is available to rent via Prime Video.

No comments:

Post a Comment