Two action movies opened in U.S. theaters this past weekend. One of them — which you may not have heard of, thanks to the Weinstein Co.’s criminally nonexistent marketing campaign — is “Snowpiercer,” Bong Joon-ho’s marvelously imaginative dystopian railway thriller. The other one — which you have undoubtedly heard of and perhaps already seen — is “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” Michael Bay’s brain-dead celebration of stunted male adolescence.
FILM REVIEW: “Transformers: Age of Extinction”
These movies are, to put it mildly, rather different. If “Snowpiercer” offers a master class in tension and pacing, then “Transformers 4” plays like a remedial course in bloat and overkill. Bong’s movie unfolds on a train doomed to forever circle the globe; Bay’s movie trots the globe and feels like it lasts forever. “Snowpiercer” is a resourceful independent production that will, with any luck, translate strong reviews and word of mouth into respectable arthouse success Stateside. “Transformers 4” — which cost more than four times as much to make (let alone market) as “Snowpiercer” — is a critic-proof commercial juggernaut, with box office legs likely even longer than those of its 19-year-old female star, Nicola Peltz. (Mark Wahlberg, who plays the girl’s dad, keeps telling her to put on something over her short shorts. Bay makes sure she never does.)
FILM REVIEW: “Snowpiercer”
But there are crucial similarities between these two movies, as well — and not just because they center around massive, fast-moving mechanical vehicles that reveal themselves to be, ahem, more than meets the eye.
1. Each film represents an ambitious foray into cross-cultural entertainment, aimed at conquering Eastern and Western audiences alike. “Snowpiercer” is the first English-language effort from the Korean auteur behind such brilliant genre hits as “Mother” and “The Host,” and its comparatively large budget and scale, extensive f/x work and eccentric international cast (which includes Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and Song Kang-ho) are clear evidence of its multicultural aspirations.
For its part, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” marks the Paramount franchise’s first calculated effort to not just court but also strategically infiltrate the ever more lucrative Chinese market. To that end, the film received a major infusion of mainland production coin and lensed in cities including Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where its final hour of mind-numbing choreographed destruction (or is it two hours? I lost count) takes place. And it, too, features an eccentric international cast that includes not only Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer, but also Chinese stars Li Bingbing and Han Geng (blink and you miss him), plus the voice of Japanese actor Ken Watanabe as the samurai-styled Autobot known as Drift.
2. Each film is the work of an auteur. Bong, whose films have played major festivals like Cannes and drawn much acclaim internationally, needs no defense as an auteur. Bay is a trickier case. As discussed in a 2011 Variety piece by David S. Cohen (featuring interviews with me and my colleagues Scott Foundas and Peter Debruge), the intense scorn heaped on the director’s work has been matched by a willingness in some critical circles to engage seriously with it, or at least to acknowledge the distinctiveness and consistency of his fast-cutting, retina-searing, more-is-more aesthetic. No doubt about it, the attentive viewer can immediately tell the difference between a Bay movie and, say, a Tony Scott movie, to cite another maestro of mass demolition. Whether the auteur designation lends Bay’s work any actual artistic heft is more of an open question.
3. Both films faced unusual challenges behind the scenes. Operating to some extent in fish-out-of-water mode, Bong and Bay were forced to grapple with powerful and not altogether trustworthy collaborators. While “Snowpiercer” had a smooth production history and became an immediate hit when it opened last fall in South Korea (where it is currently the 10th highest-grossing domestic release), Bong found himself at loggerheads with his U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein, who, living down to his “Harvey Scissorhands” reputation, called for the film be slashed by 20 minutes from its 125-minute running time for North American audiences.
Still, at least Weinstein didn’t attack Bong with an air-conditioning unit. It was Bay who found himself on the receiving end of said electrical appliance while shooting “Transformers” in Hong Kong, where he was confronted by local thugs demanding a turf fee. As acts of extortion go, it may be a touch extreme, but it does serve as a strangely effective metaphor for the potential challenges facing any American studio filmmaker thinking of venturing into Asia, where straightforward rules and procedures don’t always apply.
That much is clear from the bizarre lawsuit filed against Paramount by Beijing Pangu Investment Co., a real-estate developer and one of the film’s key Chinese sponsors. The company was so angered by Paramount’s promotional strategy — chiefly, its decision not to hold the film’s premiere at the iconic dragon-shaped Pangu Plaza Hotel in Beijing (it premiered in Hong Kong instead) — that it demanded that all shots of the hotel be cut from the film and threatened to delay its Chinese release.
4. In the end, neither director wound up having to cut anything. Thanks to “Snowpiercer’s” proven success in Asia and Europe, as well as the fact that Weinstein’s cut reportedly tested worse than the director’s original version, Bong didn’t have to cut a frame for the film’s eventual Stateside release. An unfortunate condition of that agreement: Rather than getting its initially hoped-for wide release, the film has had to settle for a limited arthouse run (through Radius/TWC) en route to VOD. Even still, it’s heartening that Western audiences are at long last able to see this thrilling, provocative and long-delayed movie as its maker intended it to be seen, an outcome that can’t help but feel like a moral victory.
Back in December, before the situation had been resolved, the critic Tony Rayns noted in Sight & Sound that “Bong is the first East Asian director to challenge (seemingly with some chance of success) Weinstein’s right to re-edit his film.” And given how many Asian films in particular have suffered as a result of Weinstein’s snip-snip, delay-delay tendencies over the years — from Masayuki Suo’s “Shall We Dance?” (1996) to Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” (2002) to Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster” (2013) — that precedent matters, and should hopefully help combat the all-too-commonly held notion that serious-minded foreign fare has to be dumbed down for mass consumption.
“Transformers: Age of Extinction,” a mass-consumption movie that would be impossible to dumb down, also didn’t have to lose a frame, as the parties involved managed to settle their dispute. Not that removing a few shots of a dragon-shaped building would have done much to diminish the film’s gaseous 165-minute running time anyway.
5. Both films are fascinating political and cultural texts. In the classic Hollywood tradition, “Snowpiercer” serves up a rich sociopolitical allegory wrapped in a feverishly entertaining spectacle. The film may be set in a (hopefully) distant future, but its despairing vision of systemic class oppression and global-warming anxiety is very much rooted in present-day liberal concerns. This is hardly the first time that Bong has confronted such issues while working under the rubric of genre, whether in his satirical 2000 debut, “Barking Dogs Don’t Bite,” or in “The Host,” a monster movie that plays out against a backdrop of man-made pollution, government corruption/incompetence, and general societal collapse. But in its portrait of the last remnants of human civilization huddled under one rickety roof, “Snowpiercer” may be the director’s most trenchant and moving piece of speculative fiction yet, and it confirms Bong as that great rarity among genre filmmakers: a splatter artist with a genuine moral vision.
The exact opposite might be said of Bay, whose characters don’t bleed, and whose aesthetics and worldview are generally in line with those of a Carl’s Jr. commercial. Still, one could scarcely call his stuff apolitical. The “Transformers” movies in particular, full of aggressive militarism and flag-waving patriotic bluster, represent one of the more conservative-skewing blockbuster franchises in recent memory — a trend that reached a sort of apotheosis in 2009’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which featured a subplot dismissing President Obama as a gutless diplomat who would sooner collaborate with the enemy than go to war. (Agree or disagree with his politics, Bay didn’t do his political critique any favors by including two jive-talking robots named Skids and Mudflap, cracking jokes about their own illiteracy.)
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” is, to be fair, a somewhat more complicated beast. Because its plot centers around a U.S.-based Autobot extermination program led by a sinister, warmongering Dick Cheney type (Grammer), the movie doesn’t play like quite the glorified military recruitment video that its predecessors did. And the fact that much of it was produced and shot in Asia undoubtedly lends the film its own unique chow-mein-and-napalm flavor.
It’s clear from the character played by Li Bingbing — she’s basically a collection of martial-arts moves and flat, phonetic line readings — that Bay hasn’t a clue how to engage with Eastern culture, assuming engagement means more than blowing it up and mining it for product placements and stereotypes. None of which is, at this point in Bay’s career, particularly offensive or surprising. Far more revealing, though, is one seemingly throwaway scene in which Chinese officials, hearing about the attack on Hong Kong, vow to send their troops to the rescue — a mainland-pandering scene that the movie dares to put across with a straight face. Bay, who has no compunction about mocking the smugness and inhumanity of the American left, displays no such swagger when it comes to critiquing the government of a foreign superpower. Far be it from this filmmaker to bite the hand that feeds him.
All of which, perhaps, serves to call point No. 2 into question. Bay may well be a consistent visual stylist, but auteurism is more than a matter of migraine-inducing aesthetics. Regardless of cultural or language barriers, a real movie artist expresses a consistent worldview, and has the guts and personal vision to subtly influence — and even subvert — his or her material. But all “Transformers: Age of Extinction” leaves us with is a sense of Michael Bay the happy, mindless conformist, truly a man lost without a teleprompter. Those Autobots may be sophisticated feats of CGI engineering, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t made by a giant tool.