He has been referred to as Korea’s version of Quentin Tarantino, with Quentin Tarantino himself recently likening him to Steven Spielberg. Now, with the ambitious sci-fi action film “Snowpiercer,” Bong Joon-ho makes his English-language debut and a bid for a broader audience.
The film is the most expensive South Korean production ever, with a budget of more than $40 million, and broke box-office records when it was released there last year. The film has also weathered a high-profile behind-the-scenes tussle with American distributor the Weinstein Co., which reportedly wanted to cut 20 minutes. Ultimately the film being released in the United States, which opens Wednesday, is Bong’s original version and the same as has played around the world.
Having first garnered acclaim on the international festival circuit with 2003’s humor-laced serial killer procedural “Memories of Murder,” Bong really broke through with 2006’s environmental-themed monster horror movie “The Host.” His follow-up feature was 2009’s intense psychological character study “Mother.” The sheer scale of “Snowpiercer” and its star-studded cast mark another step for Bong, and the film arrives on a wave of expectation from his keen international fans.
“I feel I’m a genre filmmaker in Asia,” said Bong of how he envisions himself. “I love the conventions of genre cinema, and I also love to destroy those conventions, to create my own unique genres within the genres.”
In “Snowpiercer” a failed global attempt to slow climate change by tampering with the Earth’s atmosphere leads to a new Ice Age, rendering the world an uninhabitable wasteland. An industrialist who designed a supertrain that travels an interconnected series of tracks spanning the globe has herded the planet’s survivors onboard. The poor masses are in the back in squalor, while the elites live in unfettered luxury at the front. After 17 years, a leader emerges from the back, starting a charge forward car-to-car toward the engine.
Based on the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” and with a screenplay written by Bong and American writer Kelly Masterson, the film is an international production both in front of and behind the camera, with a cast featuring North American and British performers Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Alison Pill, Jamie Bell, Ewen Bremner and John Hurt, Romanian Vlad Ivanov and Koreans Song Kang-ho and Ko Asung.
The film comes after last year’s English-language debuts by two other top South Korean directors. Both Kim Jee-woon’s “The Last Stand,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker,” starring Nicole Kidman, garnered mixed results with critics and audiences. (Park is also a credited producer on “Snowpiercer.”) Their stumbles heighten anticipation as to whether Bong can break through to a wider audience.
“Whether you call this his Western or Hollywood debut, I think it’s not an apt description of what this is. It’s very much a Bong Joon-ho movie,” said Tom Quinn, co-president of Radius-TWC, the boutique label of the Weinstein Co. releasing the film.
Reviews have largely agreed that the film is pure Bong, with the international genre website Twitch hailing it as a “visionary new work ... a demented and stunning thrillride.” Variety called the film “enormously ambitious, visually stunning and richly satisfying” while adding it is also “a surprisingly thoughtful contemplation of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, and whether mankind is worth trying to save at all.”
Rated R for violence, language and drug content