The story of Bong Joon-Ho’s forgotten masterpiece
Hailed “eccentric” by critics, director Bong’s first English language film 'Snowpiercer' was a dystopian thriller that was almost killed by Harvey Weinstein. Now, it feels more prescient than ever.
19 May 2020, 1:00pm
The concept of time has changed entirely during the coronavirus pandemic, but yes, it really has been just three (3) months since Parasite’s game-changing haul at the Oscars. The South Korean film, directed by Bong Joon-Ho picked up four awards, including its historic win for Best Picture. It remains the only good thing to have happened in 2020.
But while Parasite’s Oscars breakthrough came as a welcome surprise, Bong’s back catalogue has long performed well with audiences in the US and the rest of the Western world; he’s been directing films for two decades. Two of his earlier Korean language films, monster movie The Host and thriller Mother, both did numbers commercially and racked up great reviews. He also directed and co-wrote two English language movies that saw him work alongside a number of major Western actors: the Netflix-backed pig-hippo caper Okja, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Snowpiercer.
Snowpiercer a dystopian thriller, lavished with critical acclaim and bolstered by an all-star cast that includes Chris Evans, Parasite’s Song Kang Ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer. But the film was, at one point, destined to become a footnote in Bong’s back catalogue. Shortly after it wrapped filming, The Weinstein Company acquired the rights to distribute the film in a number of countries including North America and the UK, which is where the production's troubles began.
Snowpiercer is based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, created by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. In both novel and film, an environmental catastrophe has caused a new ice age, prompting humanity’s last survivors to board a thousand-car train called the Snowpiercer, which runs on a perpetual loop around the world. At the front of the train, the ignorant bourgeoisie live a comfortable life of luxury. But back in the caboose, the suppressed underclass are planning a revolt.
While inequality and class struggle were among the driving forces of Parasite’s story, in Snowpiercer they have a more maximalist incarnation. Set just before the 18th anniversary of the train's departure, Bong’s film follows the lower-class revolution reluctantly led by Chris Evans’ tortured Curtis, who’s seen and done things that would, quite frankly, horrify Captain America. During the long-gestated uprising, Curtis’ group battle to the front of the train to confront the vessel’s creator and caretaker, and to take control and redistribute the riches the bourgeoisie have held on to. Each increasingly elaborate carriage holds new surprises for the group. Along the way, they pick up allies, like Song Kang Ho’s imprisoned security specialist, and take hostages: namely Tilda Swinton’s Yorkshire-accented minister, with the actor having described her scene-stealing performance as a blend of Margaret Thatcher, Adolf Hitler, Colonel Gaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi.
Snowpiercer premiered in South Korea in summer 2013 and, eventually, became a smash hit in various countries. Despite that success abroad, the now-disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein had other plans for the American release. In keeping with his notorious tendency to have films he’d produced or acquired be altered before hitting cinemas -- earning him the moniker “Harvey Scissorhands” -- Weinstein reportedly insisted on cutting 20 minutes from its running time. Bong refused to make the changes, and word of their disagreement leaked to the media.
Snowpiercer was ultimately released in Bong’s uncut form in the US in June 2014, but -- in a move that suggested Weinstein was bitter about the compromise -- received a limited run in eight cinemas, focussing on a simultaneous VOD release instead. In interviews since, Bong has suggested that, “maybe that was some kind of punishment, but I didn’t care.” That said, Snowpiercer did benefit from word of mouth, and the American theatrical run was eventually expanded to more than 350 venues.
Cinemagoers in the UK and elsewhere weren't so lucky. Word from various people in the know over the years suggests that the Weinstein Company’s asking price for a distribution deal in Britain was outrageous relative to the film’s commercial prospects there. (This was pre- Parasite, obviously). Considering what we now know of Weinstein’s tendency towards bitter vendettas, it wouldn’t be surprising if this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage Bong’s international standing. In the end, Snowpiercer played at one British film festival in 2014, but was otherwise never officially released there at all in any form.
Its hard-to-come-by status has helped it develop a cult following since, but the sci-fi allegory feels even more potent in our current moment. What better time is there to watch a dystopian vision of humanity forced to stay inside or face life-threatening danger? In Snowpiercer, those left with the least fight back against the capitalist class that hoards the resources for survival and prosperity. Conveniently, a new TV series adaptation, starring Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly, has just premiered on TNT in the US. It will come to other territories via Netflix in future.
The Snowpiercer TV series is reportedly based on both the graphic novel and the story of Bong’s movie, which was written by Bong and Kelly Masterson. Bong serves as the series’ executive producer. The graphic novel and the film share few specific plot points, though both concern lower-class citizens of the train’s tail section, living in forced squalor, journeying to the front where the fixed ecosystem’s supplies are concentrated in a post-apocalyptic social hierarchy.
With The Weinstein Company going bankrupt in 2018, the studio’s back catalogue became much cheaper for others to buy, and the film version of Snowpiercer will finally receive a physical release this month. Given how movies appear and disappear unpredictably from places like Netflix, obtaining a physical copy may be your best bet for a sustained Bong hit. After all, the film itself -- and the Weinstein plotting behind it -- shows you cannot always trust the benevolence of the hand that feeds.
Snowpiercer the TV series airs every Friday at 9pm ET on TNT. The Blu-ray and DVD of Bong Joon Ho’s film adaptation will be released in the UK on 25 May.