A few years ago, Bong Joon-Ho made the biggest film in Korean history with giant monster movie The Host. He bookended that massive disaster movie with two more artful, crime and family centred dramas; Memories of Murder and Mother, proving equally adept in either camp. He makes his English language debut now with Snowpiercer, a hugely impressive film that’s rather tricky to pin down. It combines elements of many genres, sci-fi, drama, thriller, action, horror, to tell a new kind of post-apocalyptic survival story, and it’s incredibly good.
The Earth has frozen over, the outside world is uninhabitable, the result of a failed experiment to combat global warming. The only survivors live aboard a giant train, which runs perpetually but doesn’t appear to be actually going anywhere. The passengers are divided based on how they originally boarded and a class system has evolved. At the very back live the poor masses, packed into cramped and dirty carriages, fed only revolting-looking gelatinous ‘protein bars’, they are ruled over with an iron fist by Mason (a freakishly made-up, scene-stealing, Yorkshire-accented Tilda Swinton). The slightest hint of insurgence is punished in a creatively horrifying manner, as one early scene demonstrates.
The unofficial leader of the ‘tail cars’ is the old and crippled Gilliam (John Hurt), who is planning an attempt at revolution headed by Curtis (a by-far career best Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), to escape the bowels of the train and head for the front. To attempt such a feat, they need the assistance of Namgoong Minsu (an enjoyably idiosyncratic performance from Korean superstar Song Kang-ho), a prisoner who can open doors, but he’ll only come along if he can bring his daughter (Ko Ah-sung – who also played Song’s daughter in The Host).
The class segregation may initially seem like an unsubtle analogy, but this is a film full of ideas that touches on many themes concerning humanity and society, the way we treat each other, and our desperate need for survival. Characters from the elite often talk about how important it is for people to ‘know their places’, an easy thing to say from a position of power, as the film points out. A religion has basically now formed around the train’s mythical designer, Wilford. Mason and others speak of his ‘benevolence’ and ‘mercy’ in the manner of a deity, and elite class children are heard parroting ‘truths’ about him in a manner similar to kids today brainwashed by religious dogma seen in the likes of Jesus Camp. In scenes like this Bong keeps a knowing edge of satire mixed in with the horror. It also has interesting things to say about power balance, and the harsh realities faced by the prospect of living in a closed ecosystem. Snowpiercer itself is never preachy though, and could be said to present a case questioning whether humanity is even worth saving at all.
Bong treats his audience with a respect and intelligence rarely seen in big-budget filmmaking, he knows he doesn’t need to give a large amount of exposition detailing the history of the train at the beginning, instead revealing more and more details as the film moves along. The train itself if wonderfully designed, with many carriages differing vastly from each other.
With all this attention to detail and subtext, the film still maintains a high level of tension. It’s constantly gripping in telling the story of these character’s quest through the train, and frequently unpredictable. It is commendably unwilling to give us a simple ‘good guys versus bad guys’ situation. The whole thing is shot and edited superbly, allowing us to gradually experience the full extent of the train (constructed entirely on sets in Prague).
The film is a co-production between South Korea, the USA and France, and is based on a 1980s French comic book. It was surely a smart move to make this as an international co-production, I can’t really imagine this film making it through an American studio without being compromised. Bong is the third major Korean director to have an English-language debut this year, and while I enjoyed both Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand and Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, this has got to be the best English language debut from an Asian director yet (Park Chan-wook also serves as a producer here).
Snowpiercer is an unusual combination of art house and blockbuster filmmaking, both a character-driven, thought-provoking, sophisticated commentary on society, and an action-packed thrill ride with the power to shock and stun audiences, and it succeeds wholeheartedly in both respects.
UPDATE: It pains me to write this, just as I was getting this review ready to upload, reports such as this (from bleeding cool) started emerging all over the web. It seems Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein has acquired the film and is demanding 20 minutes be cut out and an opening voiceover added to dumb it down. Just after I was writing in my penultimate paragraph how I was glad such a thing hadn’t happened! This film is amazing and I cannot possibly imagine how you could take out 20 minutes without seriously compromising it. It’s disgraceful behaviour to deface a film in this manner. I hope enough of a fuss is made that this decision is re-thought (particularly considering the massive box office Snowpiercer is doing in Korea right now) but it looks depressingly like many territories are going to have to wait for a DVD to see this film as it should be, and initial reactions will all be in response to a butchered version. The makers of this film, and the audience, deserve better.