In case you’re not a totally dialed-in geek for this one, a battle has been raging in the press for several months over a movie that few journalists have actually seen. That film is South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s upcoming sci-fi graphic novel adaptation, “Snowpiercer,” featuring an international cast that includes Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner, Korean actors Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung and many more. And the drama percolating over the last few months has been pitted as a classic David and Goliath story of art versus commerce.
The bad guy: The Weinstein Company’s notoriously bullish CEO Harvey Weinstein, often dubbed “Harvey Scissorhands,” who has a reputation as a tyrannical honcho who has battled with several of his filmmakers over their cuts. The familiar narrative is that Weinstein is a despot and the filmmakers are the oppressed artists that he persecutes. TWC contractually owns U.S. rights and final cut to the ambitious sci-fi movie, but because of its length (125 minutes) and pace, he reportedly wanted to trim the movie down by 20 minutes or so. In most cinephile and journalistic circles, this news was tantamount to heresy of the highest order. The good guy: Bong Joon-ho, the modern auteur behind the beloved monster movie “The Host,” masterful crime procedural “Memories Of Murder,” and the creepy psychological thriller, “Mother,” among others.
But the point of the battle has become somewhat moot, as after months of back and forth in the press, Weinstein and Bong came to a "settlement" late last week (in quotations because legally TWC is within their right to do whatever they want per the initial distribution deal) over the film). Just as "Snowpiercer" was screening in Berlin (a hot ticket that a lot of international press were eager to make sure they got into), Weinstein agreed to put out the director’s cut of “Snowpiecer,” but with a catch: the film will on be available on the big screen in limited release, and it won't go wide. (Likely, the studio will wait and see how the film does in New York and Los Angeles before determining how much of a rollout the film will get and/or it will be on VOD not long after it hits theaters.)
Certainly, Weinstein’s reputation precedes him: "All The Pretty Horses," “Sling Blade," "The Hours," "The Reader" and "Frida" are just a few films where Harvey and the filmmakers fought acrimoniously over final cut. If you’re the “right” kind of filmmaker—Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, those with near unimpeachable status—Weinstein is more of a godfather than a hindrance, but even that was tested when Weinstein and Martin Scorsese butted heads in the early aughts over “Gangs Of New York.”
But at the end of the day, Weinstein is running a business and while it’s an unpopular opinion, one could argue he might know what’s best for his bottom line. After all, this is a man known for routinely owning the Oscars through his sheer force of marketing will. So is he a butcher or a patron? The evidence doesn’t support the latter, but believe it or not, he may have a point with “Snowpiercer,” Bong Joon-ho’s sprawling, ambitious, but uneven sci-fi film.
While the cinephile masses (and fanboys) have pre-approved the movie as a masterpiece sight unseen, “Snowpiercer” is actually a strange creature. Less a Hollywood blockbuster than a South Korean tentpole with an international cast, and while that sounds (and often is) awesome on many levels, “Snowpiercer” also has issues that arise from this marriage of styles. It’s broad, it shifts in tone frequently, it jumps from genre to genre haphazardly and its Neo-Marxist socio-political commentary about class, the 1% elite vs. the 99% unwashed masses, transcending (or staying put in) your station in life, etc., isn’t exactly subtle (and while it’s akin to “Elysium” and its unsophisticated worldview at first, it does undeniably progress beyond that eventually).
And admittedly, it’s brilliant in spots too, particularly in the way it reveals itself layer by layer, train car by train car, even narratively being “blind” in the first act before the entire big picture is revealed. Tilda Swinton is fantastic in the movie, as is the brief absurdist, satirical section that includes a hilarious Alison Pill. The movie almost functions as a flip-through comic book, cycling quickly through genres as it advances forward through train cars. It’s arguably rather simpleminded in its first car, but as the movie moves forward building terrific momentum, it becomes more complex and sophisticated (until it doesn’t—oh, those third act villains).
The fact of the matter is that “Snowpiercer” is very good, but unlike the narrative carried forth by Tilda Swinton and several journos, the movie isn’t quite a “masterpiece”—whatever that word means—and I respectfully disagree with one of our own early reviews that says touching a hair on its head “would be something close to vandalism.”
For once, Harvey might be right, in this writer’s estimation, to want to shorten the movie by 20 minutes. The movie functions like a tentpole, and is often fast and furious, but it also has almost arty and pensive starts and stops that kill its pace. From a business perspective, if you’re trying to sell and market a blockbuster, you want to actually have something resembling a blockbuster in form. And audience considerations aside, “Snowpiercer” is a little baggy and saggy in spots and regardless, you could get away from shaving some of its passive moments and an overall tightening wouldn’t hurt. IndieWire’s Eric Kohn sums it up well by calling it “unquestionably cluttered and meandering” but also an “inspired work in tune with its innovative milieu” (you can find a range of varied takes on it here).
Point being, I know it’s somewhat inconceivable to anyone who follows the simplistic narrative that the guy wearing black is always the villain (or in “Snowpiercer” the guy in the sharp dark-gray suit), but this is an instance where Harvey Weinstein isn’t quite insane. He knows his intended target audience (this is of course a movie he once wanted to release in the summer and that still could happen this year), and even though what he has on his hands isn’t quite a typical blockbuster movie—it’s too weird, dark, absurdist and odd to be just that—you can understand why he’d want to trim the more wandering and jumbled sections of the movie in favor of keeping the advancing thrust.
You should see “Snowpiercer” when it (hopefully) comes out later this year. The movie's skewed vision and overtly subversive politics will remain—they're deeply knitted into its DNA—but if losing 20 minutes would've helped Bong Joon-Ho find a wider U.S. audience (and those cuts, judiciously made, just might) and arguably make a tighter picture, then maybe—just maybe—it would've been for the best.