Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Running on rails (Snowpiercer)

At this point, I'm pretty sure I would make time to watch any movie either directed by Bong Joon-ho or starring Sang Kang-ho (they often overlap) so long as the premise sounded remotely interesting. Considering that my experience of those films will usually feature a Korean soundtrack and English subtitles, and how dialogue is often my favorite part of any given flick, you can imagine how skilled that filmmaker/performer pair must be. You can also imagine how Snowpiercer, Bong's first major motion picture in English (mostly, Sang's and Go Ah-sung's dialogue excepted), was a must-see for me.

Of course actually getting around to it took me a while, as these things often do. Which means I had heard a lot about Snowpiercer online before viewing it myself. One of the recurring notes about the film was that people found it unpredictable, and surprising, and were under its spell until the very end, needing the movie to reveal itself to them at every turn because they were never able to guess what would happen next (implicit in which is the observational criticism of most modern Hollywood offerings being rote, formulaic and contemptibly comfortable). And now that I have seen the film, I can confirm that it is unlike almost anything else in the mainstream, and I do mean that in a very positive way, although I think a slightly deeper examination of why the movie feels so unfamiliar may be merited.

The funny thing is, it would seem on a superficial level that Snowpiercer would be entirely predictable. It's a dystopian fable about an uprising in an advanced yet flawed society, which is fairly well-worn narrative territory. And furthermore, the structure of the story is literally constrained by its setting. For those of you who might not know even the premise of the movie, here's the condensed version: the story takes place about 18 years after a man-made disaster (an ironic attempt at combating global warming) has rendered Earth an uninhabitable frozen wasteland. The entire surviving human race is confined to a train that runs in a circuit around the globe, a self-contained self-sustaining system where the privileged few live near the front of the train with various amenities and the wretched unwashed masses live in the back of the train. A band of rear-car revolutionaries decide to take over the engine of the train to break the haves-and-have-nots cycle, and therefore they have to fight their way through every car to get from one end of the train to the other. So it's a heroic quest from point A to point B, and it is by definition a completely linear progression. I have to question the truthfulness of anyone who claims that they never guessed the movie would end with Curtis (Chris Evans) ultimately reaching the engine. Yes, the how of the quest matters, as do the details of what happens when the hero gets where he was going, but surely at least that much structure was a given. Or so it seems to me. There's a joke amongst geeks who play a lot of roleplaying games, that some Game Masters are willing to let the players take the stories literally anywhere in their fictional worlds, and other Game Masters throw up insurmountable obstacles in the way of any deviation from the specific plotline they had in mind all along. The latter style is known as running the story on rails because the only possible movement is forward, not lateral. Snowpiercer, and the circumstances in which its protagonists find themselves, qualifies: no way off the train, and nowhere to go but towards the engine.

One of the great things about this built-in structure of the story is that it allows Bong to play with lots of different sci-fi tropes within the same movie. There are fantastic shots out the windows of the train (once the action reaches cars that have windows) showing the iced-over world, beached battleships and collapsed skyscrapers and various post-apocalyptic eye candy. Within the train, every car and compartment has its own personality. The movie starts at the rear and revels in the imagery of a trash heap society, everyone wearing layers of patchwork rags, with living quarters that look like the burrows of scrap-metal hoarding rodents. The action then progresses through pure industrial nightmare settings, a neon-lit cyberpunk/neo-Tokyo inspired aquarium and sushi stand, a parody of brightly colored schoolrooms and black and white educational films, steampunk-inflected luxury suites, a trashy decadent non-stop dance party, and finally the clean, white retrofuturist idyll of the engine itself. It doesn't feel terribly jarring to go from one segmented setting to the next to the next because the train, as plot point and metaphor, keeps everything logically compartmentalized.

That's the beauty of Bong's approach to filmmaking, which I also noticed way back when I saw The Host: he really has no hang-ups about consistency. He swaps visual styles and narrative tones as he sees fit, and the result is something akin to a virtuosic concerto performance, now loud, then soft, now fast, then slow, with themes coming and going and returning. It's visual music. The upside to such an attitude is that you can, quite easily, surprise people, because nothing is off-limits. The downside, if you want to call it that, is that you can veer back and forth so many times that if someone starts to try to take everything in as a whole, it becomes clear that there is no sum of the parts.

Here beginneth the SPOILERS. Very early on, the audience learns that the underclass at the back of the train are fed "protein bars" which, as foodstuffs go, barely qualify as better than nothing. In the beginning part of the quest, the insurgents discover the machine that makes the protein bars, and Curtis looks through a window of the machine to see a huge roiling mass of live insects (mostly cockroaches) being ground up and liquefied before gelling together and being sliced into individual bars. Curtis is disgusted and urges the one companion who looked with him not to tell the others what they have been eating. Then, towards the end of the adventure, Curtis tells a story to his lone remaining companion about the early days of the train, when the people in the rear were starving and resorted to cannibalism, including eating children, even babies. Curtis admits he was a baby-eater. Why in the world would a man like that be horrified by the thought of eating bugs? That is one example of many plot holes in the overall story. Overall, the car-by-car snippets of Snowpiercer society the audience sees do not in any way add up to a viable, workable society, despite the villains' constant talk about everything being in perfect balance and all things in their pre-ordained place.

But in a sense, this doesn't really matter. The Curtis who wants to throw up at the thought of eating roach jelly (seriously, where did all those roaches even come from? I get the classic sci-fi trope about roaches being able to survive any apocalypse, but what do the roaches even eat? Are they being farmed on the train to feed the underclass? Why not use those farming resources on some less repugnant food production? &c.) and the Curtis haunted by remorse over eating human infants might as well be two separate characters, because we see them in two separate cars of the train, and thus they could be in two different stories from two different movies. Bong takes an idea, runs with it, and then changes cars, and every passage is effectively a soft reboot of the genre rules of the story, if not the story itself. And as I said, whether or not we are left with a beautiful clockwork narrative to admire in total is irrelevant. Bong just gives us two hours of pure movie magic, of dynamic shot compositions and evocative lighting and otherworldly scenery and action choreography and character work, in a sequence of different combinations each chosen for their own respective individual merits, not for how they hang together from end-to-end. Snowpiercer nominally has a throughline, because that's what most modern movie audiences (especially American ones) more or less expect. But the throughline isn't the point, and was never supposed to be.

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