Snowpiercer and the Korean Invasion

I recently had the opportunity to catch a few movies in the theater. Snowpiercer is currently in theaters.



Snowpiercer (2013) – Rated R

Set in a future where a failed climate-change experiment kills all life on the planet except for a lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system emerges.”

I have really enjoyed a lot of Korean cinema over the last decade. My favorites have been “The Host”, “The Good, The Bad, The Weird”, “I Saw the Devil”, and “Mother”.

I Saw the Devil” and “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” were directed by Kim Jee-woon. The former is a wonderfully dark and twisted tale of revenge and a serial killer. The latter is an epic Eastern Western. Both are currently available on instant Netflix. Obviously the success of these films caught the attention of Hollywood.

As with many successful Asian directors, Kim Jee-woon was brought over to direct a Hollywood picture – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback, The Last Stand. While there are some nice visual flourishes, The Last Stand is not very good and not just because of Johnny Knoxville.

The Host” (2006) and “Mother” were directed by Joon-ho Bong. The former is a wonderful horror tale about a pollution monster with some oddball humor. The latter is a dark movie about a mother’s efforts to clear her son of murder charges. The Host is currently available on instant Netflix.

Joon-ho Bong chose the more independent route of making an international picture, neither Korean nor American. Snowpiercer is an English-language film starring Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Tilda Swinton. It also features some Korean sequences with Kang-ho Song, star of “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” and Ah-sung Ko, star of “The Host”.

The ever fickle Weinstein Company chose a new strategy for this release. Two weeks after the theatrical premiere, Snowpiercer was made available on Video on Demand. Since it takes about two weeks for independent films to trickle down to Asheville, this meant an almost simultaneous release here. While it may mean less revenue for them theatrically, Weinstein gets a much larger share of the profits from the VOD end.

I applaud whatever arrangements allow Joon-ho Bong and other directors to realize their visions without the obvious compromises caused by the Hollywood corporatization. Here I feel it results in the difference between The Last Stand and Snowpiercer, just as decades ago it resulted in the difference between John Woo’s The Killers and Hard-Boiled and his Hollywood movies like Windtalkers and the aptly named Paycheck.

Snowpiercer is a fantastic science fiction masterpiece. Every scene is wonderfully crafted. Each car on the train serves a different societal purpose. Special effects are omnipresent yet are understated and serve the story rather than detracting from it.

The movie has a lot of interesting things to say about the (inevitable) class system that develops but never becomes pedantic. It also has quite a number of interesting revelations along the way. I really enjoyed the power of self-delusion shown in several of the characters.

Acting is wonderful from the ensemble cast. They make Chris Evans quite scruffy and tone down his charisma so fits right in. Jaime Bell makes an earnest second-in-command for the revolution. John Hurt is a charmer and a scene stealer as is Tilda Swinton though she is perhaps a bit over the top. The aforementioned Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko are great as well despite speaking in Korean without subtitles (for the most part).

Snowpiercer is the second best film I have seen this year, behind only The Grand Budapest Hotel. Catch it in theaters if you can. If not, it is available through Amazon and other VOD services.

Mother – The Korean Connection

I have always loved Asian films, especially Japanese Samurai films and Chinese gangster films. Lately though I have been enjoying a wide range of Korean movies. Mother is currently available on instant Netflix.

Mother (2009) – Rated R

“A murder rocks a South Korean town and suspicion quickly falls on a reclusive, mentally challenged — and alibi-free — young man (Bin Won). When an inept public defender botches the boy’s case, his mother (Hye-ja Kim) sets out to prove her son’s innocence. Acclaimed director Joon-ho Bong (Memories of Murder) explores the lengths a mother will go to protect her child in this atmospheric crime thriller.”

“Excuse me! This person is too important to be here.”

After watching The Host, I was looking forward to director Joon-ho Bong’s next film. Strangely after a hugely successful monster movie, Joon-ho Bong went back to his murder mystery roots and made Mother. As with The Host, the central theme here is family, specifically, of course, the bond between mother and son.

I have to warn you that this is a very long (two hours and nine minutes) drama and not as much a murder mystery as you might think. The mystery is there but is secondary to the mother’s journey. The film is a slow buildup to a stunning and unexpected revelation about two-thirds of the way through. From there until the end, the film is absolutely marvelous with many great twists. The key is that you have to be patient.

The actress playing Mother, Hye-ja Kim is wonderful. Bin Won plays the mentally challenged son, Yoon Do-joon. Yoon is similar to the dimwitted character in The Host but the comedic aspects are very toned down and Bin Won does a very good job of not turning him into a caricature. The rest of the cast are fine as well but the focus is solidly on mother and son throughout the movie.

Product Placement: The beverage Hite makes a prominent appearance here, even more so than in The Host. It’s working as I’m now curious what it tastes like.

The Host – The Korean Connection

I have always loved Asian films, especially Japanese Samurai films and Chinese gangster films. Lately though I have been enjoying a wide range of Korean movies. the Host is currently available on instant Netflix.

The Host aka Gwoemul (2006) – Rated R

“In Seoul’s River Han, a giant mutant creature has developed as a result of toxic chemical dumping. When the squidlike monster scoops up the teenage granddaughter of humble snack-bar owner Hie-bong (Hie-bong Byeon), he races to track down the murderous beast. With no help from the authorities, who are convinced the girl is already dead, Hie-bong and his family will have to band together to save her — and possibly the entire city.”

“This is alcohol!” – “You’re in middle school now.”

The Host opens with an American ordering a South Korean to dump Formaldehyde down a drain. Eagle-eyes will notice that the masked American is character actor Scott Wilson (currently Hershel on The Walking Dead). This dumping was based on a real incident of the U.S. dumping chemicals into the Han River. To offset this negative portrayal of Americans, the next one we meet is actually quite heroic.

The special  effects really sell the story. The creature was designed by Chin Wei-Chen. WETA (The Lord of the Rings) handled the modeling and the abundant CGI was handled by The Orphanage (Iron Man, Sin City). I really like that not only was the creature different but they also made it a different size. It is significantly larger than man-size but much smaller than a building (the two most common sizes for creatures). Another thing that really works is that the creature is seen early and often and it is a visual treat.

The initial attack sequence is a stunner, equal parts hilarious and terrifying, it sets the tone for the rest of the movie. They even stop the music and mute most of the sound at a crucial point.

Our hero is a dimwitted snack shack worker whose daughter is snatched by the creature and the other main characters are the family members. The dimwittedness gives this film kind of a slapsticky feel that is not usually found in American films, certainly not horror films. The family bond is a strong theme throughout the film. They bond together even though they are clearly dysfunctional normally.

The actors all acquit their roles well. The character of the daughter is quite clever as children often are in these films. Thankfully she is not annoying. The glimpses of Korean life and attitudes are fascinating as well. The story takes a few turns and the climax is both  riveting and satisfying.

The virus subplot does go on for too long. The movie could use about fifteen minutes or so of trimming. Other than that this is a fun and different monster movie.

The Host is the highest grossing film in South Korea (as of March 2009). In an odd twist, the North Korean government officially approves of this film. It is not hard to see why as the Americans are portrayed as arrogant (the dumping is based on a real incident) and the South Korean government as bumbling idiots. The Host 2 is due to be released in Korea this summer and is supposed to be a prequel in 3D.