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.

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.

Lazy Weekend Musings – Actionfest Wrap-Up

Well it looks like I could talk about Actionfest for another solid week but this is supposed to be an instant Netflix blog. I apologize for giving the rest of the films short shrift but it is better than not mentioning them at all. Some of the other films I saw at Actionfest:

WATCH: Vengeance (2009) – NR – Not rated but contains a lot of bloody violence.

“Today, Costello (French music and film icon Johnny Hallyday) is a skilled chef. Twenty years ago, he was a cold-blooded killer working for the mob. But when a horrific tragedy befalls the family of his daughter (Sylvie Testud), Costello returns to his old ways. Journeying from France to Hong Kong, our culinary hero prepares to serve up revenge on a host of bad guys in this bloody tale from acclaimed action director Johnnie To.”

Johnnie To is an excellent action director. Vengeance is an excellent but flawed revenge film. There is an amnesia angle that is hinted at in the first act and mentioned in the second that goes into overdrive in act three. It provides both the best moments in the film and the most logical holes. Still this is a wonderful action and revenge movie. Put it in your Netflix queue.

WATCH: The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) – NR – Not rated but also has plenty of bloody violence.

“On a train crossing the Manchurian desert, an unlikely trio — good bounty hunter Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), bad gangster Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee) and weird train robber Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song) — unite to find a treasure maps promised loot. Racing through the unforgiving landscape, they stay one step ahead of rivals and the Japanese army. Ji-woon Kim directs this Sergio Leone-inspired adventure.”

My understanding is that this is the largest-grossing Korean film surpassing The Host. It is a wonderful “western” epic with Mongolia filling in for the American West/Mexico. Instead of the focus being on The Good (as in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), The Good has the least amount of screentime. This movie runs on a bit too long (it could have used tighter editing) but it is quite a bit of fun. The ending is especially good. Put this in your Netflix queue too.

WATCH: Undisputed III: Redemption (2010) – Rated R for brutal, bloody violence and pervasive language.

“Isaac Florentine is back to direct the third film in the Undisputed series, this time following Uri Boyka (British martial artist Scott Adkins) inside the toughest prison in the world to watch him do battle in one of the most lethal competitions known to man. Staying alive is high on Boykas list, but he is also determined to clear his name against the wrongful charges that put him behind bars in the first place.”

Okay how could I not like this film? At Actionfest I got to meet the director Isaac Florentine, the fight choreographer Larnell Stovall, and the actor/martial artist Marko Zoror who plays the villain. Truthfully the story is almost groan-inducingly silly. Normally the holes in the script would sink this film but Isaac Florentine keeps the focus squarely on the action and moves quickly past the exposition. The fight scenes are simply incredible and I am hopeful that Marko Zoror can break through to theatrical movies and not be relegated to DTV martial arts.