As the most recognizable filmmaker of the Korean New Wave (or natively known as “Hallyu”), Bong Joon-ho is admired worldwide for helming genre-subversive films with compelling social commentary. He delivered a taut murder mystery while exposing inept police proceedings and corruption with 2003’s Memories of Murder, a family comedy thrust in front of a monster movie backdrop in The Host (2006), and an unpredictable, Hitchcockian thriller in Mother (2009). Bong’s craft and visual style have become more distinct with each film, and his trademark combination of genre mash-up and cultural critique has become more and more unflinching.
Snowpiercer marks the director’s first English language film in his career, and it has been eagerly anticipated by western audiences, finally arriving in the U.S. nearly a year after its initial release in Korea. Cinephiles rejoiced when it was announced that the full, uncut version would be released instead of a shorter cut demanded by The Weinstein Company, its distributor. And for good reason too. Although it continues his theme of bold, thought-provoking cinema, Snowpiercer is also a revelation. Bong presents a glorious sci-fi vision, rich with detail and rife with thematic relevance rarely seen on a scale like this. Not only is this Bong Joon-ho’s best film, it’s one of the best films of the year.
Following a failed scientific experiment to rid the world of global warming for good, the world as we know it has been reduced to a second ice age. The remaining survivors of the human race are those aboard a transcontinental locomotive circling the globe in a continuous loop. The wealthy continue to indulge in their decadent lifestyles at the front of the train, whilst the underprivileged are packed like sardines in the tail and subsist on rather suspicious-looking, gelatinous protein blocks. A mysterious man, known only as Wilford, runs the train, and his private security team swiftly quells any unrest from the tail section. Under the guidance of the enigmatic Gilliam (see: Terry) played by John Hurt, Curtis (Chris Evans, of Captain America fame) leads an uprising to storm the front of the train and take over the engine. He is joined by Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and he later employs the help of security expert Namgoog Minsoo (famous Korean actor Song Kang-ho, The Host) and his daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-sung, also from The Host).
And so we have the “haves” versus the “have-nots.” It’s a premise as old and eternal as our race, and here it strikes a universal chord considering the diversity involved in the production. Americans will likely see Snowpiercer as an allegory for the Occupy Movement. France (where the graphic novel “La Transperceneige” was written on which the film is based) will see similarities to its own revolution centuries ago. Korean audiences may cite past conflicts and current political tensions with its neighbors to the North.
However, the metaphor extends even broader. During one of the most memorable fight scenes in the film, the creation and use of fire becomes essential to the survival of the revolution, all the while tribal drums echo in the film’s score. It’s a primal moment, and we’re ostensibly witnessing a rebirth of sorts of humanity. One tail section passenger, whose credited title is simply “Painter” (Clark Middleton), captures the faces and triumphs of tail sectioners with sketches on scraps of cardboard, not unlike the cave paintings left by our earliest ancestors many years ago. When Curtis catches a glimpse of what actually goes into those protein blocks, he tells the Painter, “You can’t draw this.” Their history, much like ours, is what they choose to remember.
From the opening scenes in the dilapidated tail section, we get a sense of how claustrophobic and troublesome life is for these lower class passengers. More than one character mentions “the train is the world”—a notion fully realized from the beautifully detailed production design by Ondrej Nekvasil and the immersive cinematography from Hong Kyung-pyo. As the revolutionaries forge further towards the front, the train sections become much more extravagant, including a greenhouse, aquarium, and classroom that appear to grow beyond the shape of traditional train cars, creating images we won’t forget any time soon. So many frames of Snowpiercer (shot on 35mm film stock) offer jolts of cinematic delight.
Evans is doing some of his best work as the reluctant leader of the revolution. We mature with Curtis along his journey, and the heartbreaking decisions he’s forced to make are even more painful when his arc comes full-circle. Evans embodies the everyman’s man, and under the same circumstances, we would find it hard to take a different course of action. But the most memorable character has to be the shrill, second-in-command of Wilford’s regime, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton). Equal parts Mad Hatter and Mary Poppins-from-hell, Swinton steals nearly every scene she’s in with such an earnestness in her cause, even when it leads to some fairly dark ends. Wearing coke-bottle glasses and rabbit-like teeth, Swinton embodies the worst nightmare of any schoolchild who ever visited the principal’s office.
Bong certainly leaves his mark on the film, challenging our preconceived expectations of summer blockbuster fare. In the hands of a lesser director, staging such brilliantly choreographed action sequences interspersed with abrupt interludes (“Happy New Year!”) and slapstick humor would seem jarring, but here it fits seamlessly. Bong continuously shifts the pacing throughout the film, but—like the train itself—the plot never ceases in building momentum.
Some may find the opening exchanges in dialogue slightly laborious in their exposition, but they all serve a purpose, especially when the plot reaches its climax. (A second viewing is rewarding because of this). And it’s at the climax when Bong’s blend of the fantastical and the practical hits home in its literalism. Not only do the final twists come as a sucker punch to Curtis, but they hit us just as hard in a tragic bit of irony. Is a world—where the exploitation of humanity is needed to prevent its extinction—a world worth saving? This ending may be bleak. It may be cynical, but it is unapologetically honest.
In this summer tentpole era of product-over-pop art, rarely does a film like Snowpiercer come along that appeals to our heads and our hearts. Minister Mason stresses to the tail sectioners to “Keep your place. Know your place.” Someday Snowpiercer may belong squarely alongside other sci-fi greats because it so adeptly and memorably wrestles with what it means to be human. It’s the kind of film that restores your faith in cinema; an unmitigated achievement of imagination.