The long road to the Irish premiere of 'Snowpiercer'

More than three years after its world premiere, the sci-fi cult hit will finally screen in an Irish cinema

The long road to the Irish premiere of 'Snowpiercer'

John Hurt and Chris Evans in Snowpiercer. Image: ADIFF

This week, the Audi Dublin International Film Festival announced it will host the Irish premiere of sci-fi film Snowpiercer as a tribute to the late, great John Hurt.

The screening will on February 24th in the iconic - albeit potentially soon-to-change - Savoy screen 1.

Normally, when ADIFF announces a premiere, it's not a particularly surprising event - advance & early screenings of new films is part of the film festival's DNA. Snowpiercer, however, is a rather exceptional case, since it was actually completed and widely released several years ago.

Snowpiercer is the English language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Bong made his name with a series of films that gained plenty of attention internationally - his inventive thriller Memories of Murder and the refreshingly small-scale monster movie The Host were particularly warmly received by arthouse audiences and genre fans alike.

Snowpiercer, an international co-production with an estimated budget of $40 million, was a major step in scale for the immensely talented director. Adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the film imagines a world where global warming has had apocalyptic consequences, leading to a new ice age.

The final surviving humans live on a train constantly hurtling across the planet. The train is divided into distinct 'classes'. At the front are the wealthy elites living a live of luxury, while the poor are forced to live in squalid conditions at the back of the train. The plot of the film sees a group of rebels break out of the rear carriages and fight their way to the front.

Bong's film is truly exceptional, a film that feels entirely different to the sort of work you usually see on such a scale. It is a high concept film with a well-known cast (Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell and Korean star Song Kang-ho join John Hurt and others) that has ideas to spare. It boasts both impressive setpieces (an exceptionally well-realised torch-lit brawl stands out) and a clear, provocative thematic focus (as its concept suggests, this is a film deeply concerned with climate change, global warming and social inequality). It is smart, thrilling and funny, and a significant change of pace from your average action blockbuster.

Snowpiercer premiered in Seoul in July 2013, and was released locally only days later. Over the next year or so, the film enjoyed a healthy festival run (this viewer caught it at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June 2014) and a commercial release across various major markets in Asia and Europe.

Critics, for the most part, loved it, and the film retains a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. AO Scott of the New York Times wrote: "Planetary destruction and human extinction happen a half-dozen times every summer. It's rarely this refreshing, though."

US release

Amid all this apparent success, there was some strange happenings afoot behind the scenes.

Shortly after its premiere, reports began to emerge over disagreements between Bong Joon-ho and Harvey Weinstein, whose company The Weinstein Company had picked up the rights to the film in several major markets.

Harvey and his brother Bob are best known as founders of the immensely successful Miramax company - the distributor behind some of the biggest arthouse hits of the 80s and 90s. The pair founded their new company in 2005, more than a decade after Disney had acquired Miramax.

While Harvey Weinstein is credited as the man who helped propel many of the most famed modern American directors - such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Steven Soderbergh - into the mainstream, he has also been dubbed 'Harvey Scissorhands' by some. As documented by The Telegraph, Weinstein has been accused of making radical cuts to films - sometimes against directors' wishes - before releasing them.

Variety reported that a 20 minute shorter cut of Snowpiercer was tested for the US market - with rumours suggesting Bong was 'furious' over any possible cut to his work.

 Director Bong Joon-Ho, actor Chris Evans, actress Tilda Swinton, actress Ko A-sung and actor Song Kang-Ho. Picture by Lee Jin-man AP/Press Association Images

The full extent of any dispute is likely to remain unknown. As Bong told IndieWire in 2014: "A lot of these stories are exaggerated, like we were physically fighting or things were just really acrimonious, which is just not true. In the end though, it’s the director’s cut so I am very happy that the same version is going to be released all over the world and that was a decision that the Weinstein Company made, because I didn’t have final cut, so I am very thankful about that."

Snowpiercer was ultimately granted a wide US release - albeit in a rather unusual way. The film was released theatrically before quickly being released online via video-on-demand. The small release was apparently a compromise - the film was left intact, although didn't enjoy as wide a release as originally planned. Weinstein suggested to IndieWire: "I read the script and saw the footage and when I saw the final movie with the very artistic flourishes that we all love, I thought, ‘it’s not for a wide audience, it’s a smart movie for a smarter audience.’"

The Irish situation

That US release was more substantial than any UK & Ireland release, where the film remains unreleased. A similar fate befell The Immigrant, another 2013 critical darling distributed by The Weinstein Company. 

While those really interested in the film have likely watched it by now (DVD copies are easily imported, and it has long since been pirated), the film has never received an official Irish release - and that refers to cinemas, theatres and DVD / Blu-Ray.

Almost four years after its premiere, the buzz around Snowpiercer has inevitably worn off. Those who watched the film back in 2013 or 2014 will likely find it exceedingly strange that it is only now getting its Irish premiere. However, even if the lack of a wide release here continues to do the film a major disservice, the upcoming ADIFF screening at least provides some lucky Irish viewers a chance to see an extraordinary film as it should be seen.

As John Hurt’s widow Anwen Hurt said in the announcement of the special screening: "I cannot imagine a better tribute, nor one that would please John more, than Snowpiercer, a film of which he was immensely proud and that he championed so passionately."

Snowpiercer is a film worth championing, and for film fans in Dublin this could well be a once-off chance to see it on a big screen.

Bong, meanwhile, is in post-production with his next film Okja - which will be distributed by Netflix, meaning Irish viewers won't have quite so long to wait for that one.