In 'Snowpiercer,' A Never-Ending Train Ride And A Society Badly Off Track After a climate change disaster, a train must circle the globe for its passengers to stay alive. The science fiction fable was inspired by a French graphic novel and directed by a South Korean auteur.
NPR logo

In 'Snowpiercer,' A Never-Ending Train Ride And A Society Badly Off Track

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/326154752/326718058" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In 'Snowpiercer,' A Never-Ending Train Ride And A Society Badly Off Track

In 'Snowpiercer,' A Never-Ending Train Ride And A Society Badly Off Track

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/326154752/326718058" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The world has frozen over in the new movie "Snowpiercer". It's set after a climate change disaster and all the action happens on a train which has to keep circling the globe for its passengers to stay alive. The movie itself is uniquely international. Snowpiercer is based on a French comic book, directed by a Korean auteur and stars Hollywood A-lister's including Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris. The movie became a worldwide hit after opening in South Korea last summer. As part of NPR's summer series Book Your Trip, arts reporter Neda Ulaby explains why "Snowpiercer" took so long to come to the U.S.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Certain types of people have been waiting and waiting and waiting for "Snowpiercer" to open here. Film nerds, science-fiction nerds, Tilda Swinton nerds and fans of director Bong Joon-ho. Grady Hendrix is an Asian film expert who says Bong's movies masterfully subvert genre.

ULABY: Movies like 2003's "Memories Of Murder."

GRADY HENDRIX: His serial killer movie was actually a really amazing movie about Korean history, but it also delivered the thrills you want in a serial killer movie.

ULABY: Then in 2006, Bong's movie "The Host" was kind of a sly critique of American involvement in Korea dating back to the Korean War.

HENDRIX: But it was also about a giant monster eating people.

ULABY: "The Host" smashed Korean box office records and became an international sensation. So It was hardly a surprise when the director's next big action film, "Snowpiercer" was immediately snapped up by Hollywood distributors Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

BONG JOON-HO: (Through Translator) So, uncle Harvey we had a long process.

ULABY: Director, Bong Joon-ho, during a recent trip to LA said "Snowpiercer's" U.S. release was delayed for almost a year. That's because Harvey Weinstein, known as Harvey Scissorhands in the film world, wanted to cut out 20 minutes and add a voiceover. Bong adamantly refused.

BONG: (Through Translator) A lot of people think that I'm a control freak. I don't necessarily think that. But I do have that tendency.

ULABY: The international film community rallied behind Bong Joon-ho. And says Grady Hendrix, the Weinstein's eventually agreed to release "Snowpiercer" intact.

HENDRIX: Their idea to simplify it was a very silly one. The movie is incredibly simple, it is a train, the poor people live in the back, the rich people live in the front and the poor people in the back want to get to the front.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOWPIERCER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We're going to the front, come with us.

ULABY: An oppressed under classroom, rebelling against huge wealth gaps, says director Bong Joon-ho, is maybe not exactly science fiction, right now.

BONG: Similar to occupy Wall Street, in terms of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. That is something that happens in other countries and also in Korea.

ULABY: In "Snowpiercer" Tilda Swinton embodies the 1 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOWPIERCER")

TILDA SWINTON: (As Mason) I belong to the front.

ULABY: She's a hierarchical zealot, all angles, furs and jewel, who lives to grind the underclass under her coat or heels.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOWPIERCER")

SWINTON: (As Mason) You belong to the tail. Know your place. Take your place.

ULABY: Of course the 99 percent soon start forcing their way to the front. "Snowpiercer" compels, says Grady Hendrix, partly for its wealth of voluptuous and surprising visual details.

HENDRIX: They encounter security guards who are wearing sort of black ski-masks and look threatening. But instead of having their eyeholes cut out in the ski-masks, they have mouth holes, which makes them far more surreal and menacing looking.

ULABY: That's how the film keeps viewers off-balance, constantly.

HENDRIX: There's this moment where they stop at a sushi.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOWPIERCER")

SWINTON: (As Mason) Do any of you feel like sushi?

ULABY: The freedom fighters are exhausted and filthy from battle but there they are at a luxurious sushi counter in a train car that's also a giant fish tank.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOW PIERCER")

SWINTON: (As Mason) You people are very lucky. This is only served twice in a year.

ACTOR: (As character) Why, not enough fish?

SWINTON: (As Mason)Oh, enough is not the criterion. Balance.

>>ULABY In our interview, the only time the director, Bong Joon-ho switched to English was while talking about this scene.

BONG: Yeah, taste of sushi. Taste of fish. In the moving train.

ULABY: Sushi is shorthand for the preferred food of the 1 percent.

BONG: (Through translator) Outside the window you see the frozen ocean where the fish inside the tanks used to swim.

ULABY: Before the ocean was ruined, partly to make this food. Such pointed, ironic juxtaposition's are Bong Joon-ho's stock in trade.

BONG: (Through translator) And so it's really about just having fun with the audience, people go to the movies with certain genre conventions in mind and they go see movies to have certain expectations met. And so it's fun to play around with those expectations, to deliver what they came to see but also give them things they didn't expect.

ULABY: Like a message about income inequality or environmental cataclysm in a high-octane summer action flick. That's what Bong Joon-ho delivers, along with violent explosions and special effects. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.