When an acclaimed foreign-language director makes their English-language debut, it often comes at the expense of the distinctive qualities that made that director interesting in the first place. Most of the time, they become swamped in the quagmire of the Hollywood machine and deliver something that doesn’t work, either as part of their body of work or as a film in general. Recently though, there have been some exceptions to this rule, such as Danish director Tomas Alfredson’s masterful ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (2011) or South Korean director Chan-wook Park’s glorious ‘Stoker’ (2013). The latest director to join the list is another South Korean, Joon-ho Bong, who wowed audiences with his shockingly original monster film ‘The Host’ (2006) and finally leaps into the English-speaking cinema with ‘Snowpiercer’, another incredibly original piece of science fiction unlike anything you’ve seen before... unless you’ve already seen the films of Joon-ho Bong.
Set in the distant future after an attempt to stop global warming has resulted in an apocalypse that has left the earth utterly frozen, ‘Snowpiercer’ follows the travels of the train from which it takes its name: an epic machine on a never-ending cycle around the planet holding within it what little remains of the human race. The train is divided into three classes: those in the front are the aristocracy who first boarded the train, the middle holds those who paid for less opulent accommodation, and the tail are those who could jump aboard before it was too late, the definition of an oppressed lower class. As an act of rebellion against the administration that keeps them on the edge of poverty and insanity, those in the tail, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) decide to fight their way to the front and take control of the Sacred Engine and thus the train itself. Their only chance of doing so lies in the hands of Nomgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), one of the original engineers and a drug addict kept locked away. With the front section bent on bloody revenge for the insolence of the tail, led by the sadistic matriarch Mason (Tilda Swinton), those in the tail risk everything to change the balance of power on the train.
It’s a complicated premise, but after a short prologue, ‘Snowpiercer’ wastes no time jumping straight into the action, Bong and fellow screenwriter Kelly Masterson wisely choosing to dispense exposition throughout the film in short bursts of incidental information. It makes the film initially a tad disorientating, but once it (very quickly) hits its stride, it becomes one of the most giddily exhilarating experiences you’ll probably ever have in a cinema. Everything that makes Bong such a fascinating filmmaker is totally intact, from moments of slapstick silliness to brutal and unforgiving violence to genuine pathos. Based on a series of acclaimed French graphic novels, it places itself beside the classic works of science-fiction cinema by being both visually breathtaking and allegorically rich. The tight confines of the train intensify the commentary on class struggle and state-controlled hierarchy, and as Curtis and his army travel further up the train, the violence and emotional stakes of the film intensify to almost unbearable and poetic proportions. We follow these rebels every step of the way, so that their journey from the grimy nightmare of the tail into the surreal, almost evangelical body of the train is as much a journey of discovery for us as it is for them.
The film is a rhythmic dream, moments of intense action balanced with considered moments of sadness and beauty, and bolstered by touches of the absolute bizarre. The train itself is a marvel of design and a credit to production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, along with the gorgeous cinematography by Kyung-pyo Hong. The train is an intricately designer ecosystem, and is as much a character in the film as its human inhabitants. As the rebels leave the tail, they get their first glimpse in eighteen years of the outside world - a frozen wasteland frighteningly realised, and also come to understand the train’s relationship with it (it’s called Snowpiercer for a very good reason).
The screenplay occasionally stumbles over clunky moments of dialogue, but this could also be an element of the heightened surreal reality of the film and an intentional decision on the part of the filmmakers. As a feat of direction, the film shows that Bong has lost none of his distinctive charm. He perfectly balances intense drama, political commentary, bawdy humour, frightening hysteria and almost overwhelming violence, delivering it into a taught, beautifully constructed two-hour thrill ride that bursts across the big screen with breathtaking energy. The action set-pieces in the second act of the film are as impressive a feat of action filmmaking as the work of Bong’s countryman and producer on the film and director of the original ‘Oldboy’, Chan-wook Park.
The film is a rhythmic dream, moments of intense action balanced with considered moments of sadness and beauty, and bolstered by touches of the absolute bizarre.
The cast is also more than prepared for the challenges presented to them by the premise and their director, throwing themselves into their roles with total commitment. Chris Evans hasn’t been this good since ‘Sunshine’ (2007), the role of Curtis allowing him to demonstrate his considerable range while still utilising his tremendous physical presence. The rest of his band include the always-great Jamie Bell as young idealist Edgar, the radiant Octavia Spencer as fiery mother Tanya and John Hurt holding up the gravitas as wise father-figure Gilliam. A genuine treat are Song as Namgoong Minsoo, and Ah-sung Ko as his drug-addicted teenager daughter Yona. Both worked with Bong on ‘The Host’, and their familiarity with his style really grounds the film, helping to make some of the more unusual and potentially shaky plot points land on solid ground. Both are an absolute delight. The real highlight though - and the actor who is clearly having the best time out of anyone - is Tilda Swinton as Mason, the toothy matriarchal minion of Wilford, the engineer who runs the train and whom is worshipped as a god. Mason is an ecstatic creation, a Yorkshire demon both bloodthirsty and dowdy, terrifying and incredibly funny. She sparkles every moment she’s on screen, and adds to both the surrealism and the terror of Bong’s film. There’s also a stunning cameo from Alison Pill as a school teacher, but I won’t say anymore and ruin the surprise.
I’ve used the word "original" to describe a lot of films this year - mostly science fiction films - but we seem to be in the middle of an exciting period in the genre, where filmmakers are taking genuine risks with it and using it to say something about the world around us. ‘Snowpiercer’ might be one of the most exciting and original offerings yet. It’s an incredible piece of allegory, anchored by great performances, stunning design, impeccable direction and a brave and committed central premise. As with anything this original, violent and daring, it won’t be to everyone’s tastes (audiences at the Sydney Film Festival responded to it with a mixture of awe and disgust), but for those willing to jump on this most surreal of train journeys and see what unexpected twists and turns it takes, this is a rare and exhilarating cinematic treat. I have little doubt that in years to come, ‘Snowpiercer’ will sit comfortably next to the likes of ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Children of Men’ as a dystopian science-fiction classic.
This film is showing exclusively at Cinema Nova, Carlton in Melbourne and Dendy Cinemas, Newtown in Sydney. It should hopefully receive a Blu-ray release later this year.