Blockage on the line: Snowpiercer vs Scissorhands

Bong Joonho’s Snowpiercer was one of the most anticipated films of 2013. But while it has been a hit in France and Korea, English-speaking audiences won’t be able to see it for some time to come. This is more than just a case of the wrong kind of snow.

Tony Rayns
Updated:

from our January 2013 issue

There are lawyers in the room, so we need to speak softly. Bong Joonho’s fifth feature Snowpiercer was shot on a huge sound-stage in Prague in the early months of 2013 and post-produced in Seoul in the late spring and early summer. Budgeted at around $40 million, which makes it the most expensive Korean production to date, the film had a gala premiere in Seoul on 29 July and opened to the public on 1 August.

It has so far grossed in the region of $65 million in South Korea alone, has recently opened in France and is now rolling out through the main East Asian markets. But it was conspicuously absent from the autumn’s major festivals in Europe and North America and (despite being almost entirely in English and starring Tilda SwintonJohn Hurt and Jamie Bell among others) it has no scheduled release date in any English-speaking territory.

The film did play as a gala in the Busan Festival last October, and Bong introduced it there by alerting English speakers in the audience to the fact that it might well be their only chance to see it in his original version. This public announcement confirmed the truth of rumours that had been swirling through blogs and social network sites since July: that Bong was locked in a dispute over the editing of the film with The Weinstein Company (TWC), which had bought rights to Snowpiercer for six English-speaking markets and, amazingly, had contractual control over the film’s release dates in various other markets too. The dispute is ongoing (as I said, lawyers are now involved), so the film’s arrival in Britain – in any version – may well be long delayed.

Snowpiercer is based on the three-part French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, who make fleeting appearances in the film), which Bong came across in Europe some eight years ago. It’s a very free adaptation. Only two ideas in the rather mediocre original caught Bong’s attention: the notion that a very long train in perpetual motion around the globe carries the only human and animal survivors of a new ice age, and the notion that the train’s division into first-class, second-class and cattle-class sections foments rebellion and a dream of revolution.

Bong wrote his own original screenplay, later enlisting Kelly Masterson to help with the English dialogue. He reduced the length of the train, created new characters and a new backstory and turned the piece into a playful and sophisticated political satire. The film very smartly questions the point and efficacy of revolutionary solutions – an angle with particular resonance for Koreans of Bong’s generation, who were actively involved in protests against the military dictatorships that governed South Korea until 1993.

An early concept sketch by Bong for a scene from Snowpiercer, reproduced with permission of the director.

An early concept sketch by Bong for a scene from Snowpiercer, reproduced with permission of the director.
Credit: Bong Joonho

The first I heard of problems with the film’s release came in a 14 July email from Bong. He was angered that programmers from the Locarno and Toronto festivals had been forbidden to preview the film by the Korean production company/distributor CJ Entertainment, on orders from TWC, on the grounds that the “TWC cut” – to be released in English-speaking territories, including the UK – was not yet finalised. He invited me to the premiere of the original version in Seoul and asked me to write about the film he had actually made.

Of course, I accepted. But by the time I arrived in Seoul on 27 July, matters had moved on. A DCP (digital cinema package) of the original version had mysteriously found its way to the Magno screening room in New York, without the knowledge or approval of Harvey Weinstein, where it was watched by Variety critic Scott Foundas. His enthusiastic review (“enormously ambitious, visually stunning and richly satisfying”) was posted on 22 July.

In Seoul, Bong told me about his fraught visit to the TWC office in New York earlier in the month. On arrival, he’d been greeted by Weinstein with a bear-hug and the words, “Director Bong, you are a genius!” But then he was asked to watch a rough re-edit of his own film prepared by TWC, purely, they insisted, to suggest to him how the film might be “improved” for American audiences.

The improvements, according to Bong, included deletions of some 25 minutes (Bong’s original runs for 119 minutes, plus six minutes of end-credits) and the elimination of most of the character-detail. TWC did not have access to the original picture and sound materials and so the re-editors had been forced to work on a DVD screener, but it was obvious to Bong that they were trying to turn Snowpiercer into a more conventional action-thriller. He was subsequently asked to come up with a shorter cut of his own, and to add explanatory voiceovers at the beginning and end of the film. TWC staffers explained to him that the film had to be made comprehensible to “audiences in Iowa and Oklahoma”. Weinstein later suggested that his “friend” Neil Gaiman be approached to write the voiceovers, a proposal Bong quickly rejected.

Harvey Weinstein has always liked to present himself as a cinephile producer/distributor, but he didn’t earn his nickname ‘Scissorhands’ for nothing. Back in the days when he and his brother Bob ran Miramax – before they sold the company to Disney – he was notorious for buying and then not releasing films.

One example among many: Miramax bought North American rights to Ann Hui’s Summer Snow (Nüren Sishi, 1995), a clued-in study of a woman coping with the problems of middle-age, including her father’s dementia, and then not only failed to release it but also refused to let it screen in festivals. I found this completely baffling at the time, until an American friend suggested to me that there might be tax advantages in owning an “unrealised asset”. I’ve no idea if that’s really why Hui’s film was shelved, but I do know that her reputation – and her prospects for selling later films in North America – weren’t helped much by Miramax.

The company didn’t so often cut or re-edit the films it bought back then, but the Japanese director Suo Masayuki once told me about his cautionary experience with Miramax over Shall We Dance? (1996). Weinstein had assured him that American audiences would never sit through a 2½-hour subtitled movie; he insisted on shortening the film for its US release, but suggested that the ‘director’s cut’ could come out later. Suo’s wry comment: “I’m still waiting.”

At TWC, Weinstein’s ‘issues’ with filmmakers are usually clashes over editing and running times. The joke currently going around Korean film circles is that the only Asian film ever released by TWC in its original cut is Ryoo Seungwan’s The City of Violence (Jjakbae, 2006) – simply because Weinstein couldn’t find anything to cut from a 93-minute movie.

Some directors are happy enough to let Weinstein re-edit and shorten their work. The latest example would be Wong Kar Wai, whose The Grandmaster (2012) had been released in at least three different cuts before Weinstein demanded a shortened re-edit for the English-speaking territories he owns.

But The Grandmaster is a shapeless and listless film, which flickers into dramatic life only very occasionally. Its best scenes are virtual re-runs of episodes already seen in Wong’s earlier movies, such as the over-familiar motif of a man coldly rejecting the woman who loves him. (As in 2046, the actors going through these motions are Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi.) By endlessly tinkering with the film, Wong is tacitly admitting that he never really found a way to please both his Chinese audience and his non-Chinese fans. Weinstein introduced the TWC version at the London Film Festival (it played as the ‘surprise film’) as the most “kick-ass” martial-arts movie since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which suggests that he sees it as something it never was in the first place.

In some of the interviews he’s given to promote Snowpiercer in France and Hong Kong, Bong has been saying emollient things about TWC: he’s called the staffers “nice people” and stressed his hope that they can “reach a good conclusion” over a “speedier” cut of the film.

But, according to Richard Johnson’s 6 November report on the Page Six website, when Bong spoke at the Tilda Swinton tribute at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on 5 November, he referred to Weinstein with undisguised sarcasm (“Such a great man”) and publicly regretted that he couldn’t show the audience the film he’d made with Tilda. By email, Bong tells me that he swung by the TWC office again while he was in New York (“fucking hilarious”)… and that his original cut of the film will be showcased in the Berlin Film Festival in February. He and some of the actors will attend. This means that at least one Weinstein veto has been swept aside.

Nobody outside CJ and TWC – probably not even Bong himself – knows exactly what the lawyers are currently talking about. The happiest possible outcome would be for the TWC contract to be rescinded so that the film could be sold to other distributors in the English-speaking territories: distributors happy to show Bong’s original cut, already a proven hit in Korea and France. But Weinstein is not known for his eagerness to compromise, or for his willingness to admit that he might be in the wrong.

Whatever happens, Bong is the first East Asian director to challenge (seemingly with some chance of success) Weinstein’s right to re-edit his film. The strength of his position is that he’s not coming on as a bleating auteur who’s determined to preserve the sanctity of his ‘vision’ but as the creator of a popular film that has already wowed audiences in Korea and France.

Discussion of Snowpiercer itself should obviously wait for the film’s appearance in Britain, in whatever version, but it’s hard to resist giving readers some idea of what they’re currently missing. Like Bong’s other films, it’s rooted in genre but shot through with idiosyncrasies. Audience expectations are not so much confounded as exceeded. As we’ve noted, the film is fundamentally a political satire – but its political dimension emerges very naturally from the characters and situations, all of which feel right at home in an action-thriller.

Bong’s new backstory imagines that a future attempt to head off global warming has catastrophically backfired and caused the ice age that has extinguished life on the planet. The only person who saw this coming was the US industrialist billionaire Wilford, who built the Snowpiercer train and its track encircling the northern hemisphere, perfected the perpetual-motion engine, and sold off places in the elite sections of the train.

Political differences with his engineer-partner Gilliam (Hurt) have led to a schism; Gilliam now lives with the huddled masses in the tail of the train, where he inspires and guides a revolt against Wilford’s heavily guarded tyranny. Led somewhat hesitantly by Curtis (Chris Evans) and his sidekick (Bell), the uprising begins with an overtly phallic assault on the train’s prison-car to free the incarcerated designer of the security systems, Minsu (Bong’s regular star Song Kangho). It then makes slow progress through the protein-producing plant, the aquarium, the classroom, the greenhouse and the nursery and on to Wilford’s stronghold at the front.

At first sight, the uprising has an Eisensteinian simplicity and clarity: working-class vigour versus pampered bourgeois luxury. The assault inevitably comes up against fascistic counter-attacks; Bong gives us both hordes of identikit stormtroopers and a lone crack-shot killer (Vlad Ivanov, from 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days).

But the privileged part of the train is better represented by the train master Mason (Swinton), a Yorkshire schoolmarm type with buck teeth and an inalienable sense of superiority… and by Wilford himself, seen only in the closing scenes, who turns out to be someone rather different from the ogre everyone has imagined. Typically, Bong places the sting in the tail of the film – but at the front of the train.

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