I’m a big Bong Joon-Ho fan. His Memories of Murder is probably one of my favorite all-time films. I think his work divides into two categories. There’s the moody psychology of Memories and Mother and the anarchic genre thrillers of Barking Dogs Never Bite, The Host and his contribution to Tokyo!.
Snowpiercer is Bong’s first English-language film and it certainly belongs to the latter category. It’s got a little bit of Terry Gilliam wackiness to it, but brings the director’s dark sensibility, his penchant for odd family dynamics, and his eye for well-choreographed action sequences.
Snowpiercer is also, unfortunately, Bong’s worst film. It’s far from bad. For me it’s kind of like Looper: flat-out incredible for a large-budget wide release, but within its genre and when compared with others of the same ilk, nothing special.
The film has several really strong points: a gorgeously constructed action set-piece amidst the claustrophobic, eponymous train as it enters a long tunnel. Bong uses slow-motion, night vision, sound (we probably see 30% of the violence in the entire film…but we hear it all), and darkness to great effect. Chris Evans – I’ve never seen him as Captain America outside of The Avengers – is surprisingly effective. The great Korean actor Kang-ho Song is fantastic as usual.
The problems with Snowpiercer are many. Firstly, there are several characters (the ‘badasses’ on either side) who receive no introduction, yet are supposed to carry weight throughout. They just kind of appear and then exist – one as a gymnast, tattooed stereotype, the other as a sort of overweight Michael Myers (from Halloween that is), sans mask. Neither is convincing, and their sudden appearances render their subsequent involvement hilarious (wait…where did this guy come from again?).
John Hurt, usually incredible, sounds like he’s doing storybook voiceover every time he opens his mouth and what should be an incredibly poignant expository monologue towards the end is all but ruined for its “too little, too late” approach (why not include more of that as visual information beforehand aside from the few nonchalant references dropped throughout?). I really like Bong’s visual sense, but every single fight, or would-be-fight scene is preceded by a painfully slow set of gaze exchanges meant to build (and sometimes they do, terrifically), but oftentimes just slowing down time before a fight that would’ve realistically begun minutes prior.
Nevertheless, Snowpiercer is fun. There’s a great classroom scene that’s heavy on the satire and a nice tape-measure reveal at the end.
World War Z
I’m not going to talk about this full film. I liked it well enough, though it really, really bothered me that they substituted Glasgow for Philadelphia. I mean c’mon…any respectful (and aren’t we all?) resident of Philadelphia will know there’s no such square as that. Why bother calling it Philly if it’s not? It doesn’t seem too essential to the plot other than having the virus spread throughout the US, which could’ve been done anywhere. Is city name-recognition that important?
What I do want to discuss is the first scene of the film. Gerry and Karin Lane (Brad Pitt and Mireille Enos (it’s refreshing to see her doing something other than squinting with her hands in her pockets in The Killing)) are in the kitchen with their two daughters. I was struck by the sheer amount of coverage to make up a short scene. It felt like overkill to me, and also super-cutty and a scene that was made in the editing room and not on-set. In short, I didn’t like it.
I’m coming from shooting a very low budget feature. We shot it in 17 very full days. I can dream of covering a fairly simple scene that much, but I like to think that, given the opportunity to do so (i.e. the time and money) I’d still approach this in a more efficient way. I’d love to know how many cameras were used (I’m guessing one) and what the initial blocking looked like in comparison to how it ended up on-screen (what appears to be a stray dolly in there may indicate that they’re quite different).
The scene starts over the daughters’ shoulders on the TV and then cuts to a MCU on Pitt:
Shot #1 pans and pulls focus, now in an over-the-shoulder shot:
The 3rd new shot is this medium-wide 2-shot, which Pitt eventually enters:
Shot #4 is this slight low-angle. Kids in the foreground, Pitt in the background and in an MS:
I believe these next frames are the same as shot #1, though with a slight zoom out to reframe in the second shot below:
This profile on Pitt is either a new shot (#5), or it’s a continuation of #2 with a dolly move cut-out:
A close-up on Enos:
A shot that appears to be a continuation of #3 but with the pan cut out:
Back to #4:
Here’s a new frame (#6), which is an insert on the TV with Pitt in the foreground. It’s followed by an MCU profile on his daughter (#7):
#s 8, 9, and 10 get tighter still. A CU on Pitt; a new insert on the TV; and another insert on the TV now from his daughter’s approximate POV:
Back to the profile on his daughter, which is finally, more than halfway through the scene, following by the first wide-shot/master for his other daughter’s re-entrance:
#11 is a close-up on the older girl, and #12 is a medium wide-shot from over Pitt’s shoulder:
This last shot also dollies slightly to the empty table, as though it’s an aborted dolly that was planned for something else and made it in only slightly:
So by my count, unless I missed some or assumed some weren’t combined that were, etc, this is 12 total shots for a scene that runs about 1:20. I didn’t count the cuts but I’d guess that the average shot length on-screen is something like 3 seconds. I have no intrinsic problem with any of these stats, but the scene feels like it’s trying to find momentum that isn’t there via the cut. It also feels like a rough cut.
In the end, I get what happens and that’s the important part. The editing is, in that sense, really impressive. But it feels so unnecessary. Maybe all 12 shots should be there, but in that case, then they should be cut together less rapidly. It feels uncertain and unsure – with what I don’t know. Is the cut hiding performance issues? Blocking issues? Trying to make a boring scene energetic? I felt ping-ponged around a small room and the effort to both keep the TV in/at the fringes of frame (I hate that profile of Pitt with the TV in the background – it’s unnecessary and ugly composition) and also establish family dynamics (older sister cares for younger sister, Pitt is a joking, caring dad, etc) is strained.
I’d cut most of the TV: the opening credit sequence and subsequent scene do all of that lifting. I’d also linger on Pitt’s MCU for longer. There’s that blocking moment that brings the older daughter back into the kitchen. Maybe lose that? It’s motion, which is often good, but it feels too frenetic. Keep the teddy bear she retrieves somewhere nearby, or start her off-screen so we don’t have to see her come in and out. I also really don’t like shot #7, so I’d lose that entirely, including it in other bits of coverage that still keep the 180 line intact. The dolly at the end feels sloppy and, as I’ve mentioned before, aborted. Cut it out – if it’s trying to show an empty table and thereby foreshadow Pitt’s detachment from his family then it ain’t working.