Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, John Hurt
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer follows the last dregs of humanity after an unsuccessful attempt to reverse the effects of global warming. Traveling along the Snowpiercer, a gigantic train traveling the now frozen Earth’s tracks, society is divided by train cars, with the wealthiest and most privileged at the front and the poorest most miserable in the tail section. As conditions degrade in the rear, a leader named Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) emerges to lead a revolt to take the engine at the train’s front. Alongside him is security expert Namgoong Min-su (Song Kang-ho), the only man left who knows how to open the cars, as the ‘tailenders’ plan to take the train car by car, and inch by bloody inch.
2013 was to be year of Korean cinema in Hollywood, with 3 famed Korean directors making the jump to produce English-language films; Kim Jee-won’s The Last Stand starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Park Chan-wook’s dark thriller Stoker, and finally Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. While The Last Stand failed to fully capture Kim’s energy and definitely featured some hands being tied by studios hoping to restart an action career for the newly out of office Schwarzenegger and Park’s own Stoker, a film I actually found quite entertaining, had less than stellar box office receipts or even a decent theatrical release, the final hopes of the Asian film aficionado community seemed to lay with Bong’s ambitious and truly international sci-fi actioner. Suffice to say that Snowpiercer blows those expectations away with its deft mix of beautiful art direction, thrilling action, superbly engrossing performances, and Bong’s recognizable dark direction.
Chris Evans, a newly minted A-lister, tackles his role of Curtis with much more surprising depth than you’ve seen him in any other film before. He’s a reluctant leader, clearly full of self-doubt but knowing that this revolution has to happen, having witnessed the very real hardships and horrors of the tail end of the Snowpiercer. As he steps into his role as revolutionary we see a deft transformation as he and his comrades’ journey though some of the opulent and decadent cars held far away from their miserable existence. As his personal experiences come to light, we realize the callousness of humanity and just why he is fighting so hard for the front of the train. Song Kang-ho, a Bong veteran, actually reunites with his former The Host daughter Go Ah-sung, in a Korean language performance as a prisoner who holds the secret to advancing to the endgame. Most of his scenes are translated on screen, either through electronic translators within the world of the picture or through the translations provided by Go as his daughter. A particularly powerful scene between Evans’ and Song’s characters towards the end of the picture carries an enormous amount of weight that hits you just as hard as any of the ultraviolence present in the film’s action scenes. It’s dark, heavy, and so surprisingly well handled that the difference in culture has no real bearing between these two men separated by the language. Some affecting material no doubt.
Bong’s direction carries with it a sense of claustrophobia couple with elements of wonder as the passengers make their way to the front car and engine. As each car passes by, you are left to wonder ‘what’s next?’ in a sort of Christmas surprise feeling as the film progresses along with the characters. There is a definite undercurrent that belies the film; a not so veiled commentary on the state of North Korea. With elements such as indoctrination, systemic fear, resource management, the gap between those in power and the oppressed, and the horrific truths of the DPRK prison system, it’s an analogous entry told through the medium of film. The picture’s look is phenomenal with art direction and effects all being of a considerably higher level than most South Korean films and the influence of such an international production. Certainly an example of when a melting pot of ideas is done right, the American, European, and Asian cast and crew all perform admirably.
Bong Joon-ho’s filmography boasts some of the most expressive, imaginative, and surprisingly human genre films ever made. While Snowpiercer isn’t without flaws; some minor plot holes, the occasional bit of humor that doesn’t work, and the lack of screen time to certain characters, it is nonetheless fearless cinema and one of the reasons I am such a fan of international cinema. The fact that this picture evens exists as it does, with such a stellar cast and as a roughly high concept science fiction genre film, is nothing short of remarkable in today’s remake and sequel driven film environment. Bong’s Snowpiercer, for all its Western glitz and story grit, is still a film about subtleties and thankfully that isn’t something lost in translation.