‘Snowpiercer’: Bong Joon-ho’s Pandora’s box

Hope is hard to find when you’re trapped in a cold iron box — surrounded by sickness, violence and 1,000 lean starving bodies with no room to move. But hope is there — buried in Pandora’s box.

It’s the fire in Curtis’ (Chris Evans) eyes as he patiently plans for rebellion. It’s the rumble in Edgar’s (Jamie Bell) belly as he hungers for steak. It’s the desperation in Tanya’s (Octavia Spencer) voice as she searches for her son, Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis). And it’s the feeling in our gut as we watch Bong Joon-ho’s two-hour dystopian film, “Snowpiercer.”

Inspired by Benjamin Legrand, Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” “Snowpiercer” takes place in 2031 — 17 years after man’s remedy for global warming froze the earth. Humanity survives on Wilford’s (Ed Harris) sacred ark — a transcontinental train seated by social class. At its head is Wilford, the train’s divine engineer, and Wilfred’s mouthpiece Mason (played by the excellent Tilda Swinton). It’s caboose contains the dirty and destitute, yearning for a better life.

Captain America’s spearheading this revolution, trading his red, white and blue titanium shield for an inconspicuous wool hat. Evans’ almost unrecognizable in the hat and dark beard and you quickly forget his more popular on-screen persona. By the time he takes off his hat, revealing short, dark hair, he’s Curtis, the mysteriously reluctant leader in this fictional uprising. That’s a testament to the smart costume design by Catherine George and the work of the hair and make-up team (Linda Eisenhamerova, Chris Lyons, Gabriela Polakova, Paula Price, Matthew Smith, Bobo Sobotka and Jeremy Woodhead).

Under their direction (and Swinton’s acting, of course), the androgynous Swinton resembles a cross between “The Hunger Games'” Effie Trinket and “Harry Potter’s” deranged temporary headmaster Dolores Umbridge.

“Would you wear a shoe on your head?” says Mason. “I am the head. You are the shoe… Know your place.”

As Mason compares a shoe to life on Wilfred’s train, she holds a shoe in her hand and slowly twists it — as if its were a moving locomotive and she, the conductor.

Like his friend Park Chan-wook’s (“Stoker,” “Oldboy”) works, Bong’s “Snowpiercer” is visually striking. Bong even draws upon Park’s work. In one scene, Evans fights his way through a train compartment full of butch men in ski masks. It’s reminiscent to a scene from “Oldboy” (2003) — when the film’s hero, Oh Dae-su, fights through an corridor of men.

Written by Bong and Kelly Masterson, “Snowpiercer” (which is the Korean director’s first English language film) echoes the themes of Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Order is the code to survival — even if the fruit of freedom tastes sweeter. Nonetheless, in the grimmest of tales, a glimmer of hope resides.

“Snowpiercer” was directed by Bong Joon-ho and written by Bong and Kelly Masterson.


‘Cutie and the Boxer’: two artists sharing the same palette

Noriko and Ushio Shinohara seem younger than they are. When Zachary Heinzerling’s award-winning feature-length debut documentary, “Cutie and the Boxer,” begins, the couple’s celebrating Ushio’s 80th birthday.

Although they both sport grayish white hair (Noriko’s is pulled back into twin braids), they have a youthful quality about them. At dinner, they throw cherry tomatoes in the air and try to catch them with their mouths. And while their dinner has evolved from Ramen noodles and cheap beer, they’re still starving artists, struggling to pay the bills and fix the leaky ceiling to their New York City apartment.

Noriko’s semi-autobiographical cartoons are naked because like her, her protagonist, Cutie, is poor. The cartoons are a culmination of 30-plus years of marriage to Ushio, a well-known Japanese Neo-Dadaist. His claim to fame are his Jackson Pollack-esque “boxing painting”; exhibits have traveled across the U.S. and Japan.

For years Noriko has been overshadowed by Ushio, quietly assisting him and raising their child, Alex.

“We’re like two flowers in one pot,” says Noriko. “It’s difficult sometimes. We don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But then everything goes well and we become two beautiful flowers. It’s either heaven or hell.”

Her marriage was the inspiration for her artwork in her and her husband’s joint NYC exhibition, “Love Is… Roarrr!”

“My life with Ushio has been a constant struggle but that has made me who I am today,” Noriko says. “Now I think all that struggle was necessary for my art. So if I had to do it all over again… I would.”

Ushio, of course, isn’t without his own troubles.

“Art is a demon. A demon that drags you along,” says Ushio. “You throw yourself away to be an artist.”

He tries to stay fresh and relevant despite his early fame.

It’s difficult.

“You always say the first work is the best,” Noriko reminds her husband, “but you can say the same for artists, their first work is the best. It’s their later work that gets tough.”

Heinzerling’s documentary is colorful and poignant, but if the Shinoharas’ assessment is true, the director/cinematographer/writer will have a tough time topping his accolades. “Cutie and the Boxer” has already won awards in various indie festivals including Sundance, Tribeca and London. The documentary was also nominated in this year’s Academy Awards.

But that’s the beauty in art, isn’t it?

“Cutie and the Boxer” was filmed, directed and written by Zachary Heinzerling. It was nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

‘Dog Boy’: a lesson in empathy

Dog BoyFlash back five months to when stories were first emerging from Sochi, Russia: the poor hotel accommodations, the relocation of residents, and the killings of hundreds of stray dogs.

Although Eva Hornung’s 2010 novel, “Dog Boy,” takes place in a different Russian city, she describes the clean up well. Under the militzia, “stray dogs and people were bullied to the outskirts and beyond.”

Among them include the book’s hero, Romochka, a four-year-old boy abandoned by his mother and abusive uncle. Cold and starving, Romochka stumbles upon mother dog Mamochka and her litter of puppies. Mamochka takes him in and the litter becomes his brothers and sisters, protecting him from preying humans as he collects scraps for food.

Hornung’s novel is a vicious portrayal of humanity. Romochka’s lucky to have been adopted by dogs rather than humans, she writes more than once.

“No drugs, for starters,” says Hornung. “No glue or petrol. Probably no rapes. Eight-year-olds living in the street were almost invariably victim of all three. And even if they had once been Romochka’s family pets, these dogs had evolved to function as a pack. They were close to being feral, and probably very loyal…. A homeless boy could be a lot worse off, all things considered” (276-277).

Divided into five parts, Hornung’s 290-page book follows the boy-raised-in-the-wild trope well. We’ve seen this with Rudyard Kipling’s novel “The Jungle Book” and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan and the Apes” series (both have been adapted into animated Disney movies). The theme’s repeated in recent book-to-film adaptions like Laika Entertainment‘s new release “The Boxtrolls.

On one side of the spectrum, “Dog Boy” shows us the fierce loyalty in a pack of wild animals; humans, on the other hand, fight each other for survival and sport. In one gruesome scene, Hornung paints a horrible and disturbing picture straight out of “Lord of the Flies.” A gang of sociopathic boys tie up and torture Romochka the “dog boy” like they would pour salt on a slug.

The bullies would goad him to swear and cry, poking him with sticks and burning him with cigarettes.

Hornung foils these scenes with racism and discrimination. Civilized humans would call Romochka and his dogs “filth” and “animals,” crucifying him as other and foreign. Armed officers of the law would scoff at the idea of feral kids as even human.

“That’s no kid,” says one officer. “That’ll kill my kid given half a chance” (135).

Even as these “humans” alienate Romochka, Mamochka and the dogs show him incredible kindness. Romochka’s “littermates” guard and protect him. Mamochka feeds him milk intended for her puppies. One cold winter, Mamochka kills off her own offspring because food was so scarce and so she would enough milk to feed the human boy.

Don’t get me wrong, Hornung seems to be saying; not all humans are evil. She invents a local chef that feeds Romochka and his dogs leftovers from her kitchen. This is followed by a pair of scientists who work to adopt Romochka. Still, “Dog Boy” is a smart commentary on humanity’s immense capacity for cruelty.

No wonder dogs are man’s best friend.