At this point we’ve had two cherished South Koran filmmakers release their English language debut. First with Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil, A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) and his Arnold Schwarzenegger action film, The Last Stand. Then there was Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) with his dark thriller, Stoker. Both have received a mixed response from both critics and audiences. And now, we have Bong Joon-ho, of Mother, The Host and Memories of Murder fame, having his turn at making a film for Western audiences, and to say he’s fighting an uphill battle would be an understatement, to say the least. And that doesn’t even factor in the feud between Bong and Harvey Weinstein over the cut of the film, after Harvey said he would cut twenty minutes and add voiceovers on the beginning and end of the film so that the film “will be understood by audiences in Iowa…and Oklahoma.” Seriously, what? Thankfully, a compromise has been reached and American audiences will receive an uncut version of the film, but the number of theaters it will be released would lessen, only widening the release if the film does well at the box office.
Snowpiercer takes place in the year 2031. Seventeen years ago, a failed global warming experiment eradicates virtually all life on the planet; the remaining humans are aboard the “Snowpiercer,” a ridiculously large train that constantly travels on a track that spans the globe. Within the train, a class system is kept to keep the population in order, with the privileged occupying the front, and the poor crammed in the tail. During a delivery of a gelatin-like protein blocks for the poor, Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a violent revolt with the help of other inhabitants, a released prisoner, Namgoong Minsu (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). They attempt to move their way up the train in order to take over the engine and thus, control of the train.
In short, Bong Joon-ho delivers and he does it so satisfyingly. One thing that Western audiences might get drawn towards the film is the cast, and what an incredible cast it is. Tilda Swinton chews the scenery as Mason, a representative of Wilford, the man responsible for the train existing. Despite feeling like a character right out of The Capitol in the Hunger Games, she does not feel out of place, and her fantastic make-up work makes her practically unrecognizable in the role. She’s often over-the-top, but also intense when necessary. John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner and Jamie Bell play members of the poor living in the tail end of the train and they are all fantastic. Alison Pill shows up for one scene just over half-way through the film, and she absolutely kills. Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko (both of whom have appeared in some of Bong Joon-ho’s other films), do a great job and hold their own well with the English-speaking cast. Last, but certainly not least, is Chris Evans who delivers the best performance of his career since Sunshine. He transforms into a damaged, desperate, and determined man who will stop at nothing to help the people who deserve better at the tail of the train. His character isn’t given much backstory until the end of the second act, with one monologue delivered flawlessly by Chris that adds a tragic element to the character, also making him more of an anti-hero than once thought. His performance reflects it exceptionally, and to me is one of the standout performances of the year so far.
The aesthetics of the film are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The production and art design (by Ondrej Nekvasil and Stefan Kovacik, respectively) of the train’s interior is some of the best I’ve ever seen. The claustrophobic sets are filled with an absurd amount of rich detail, and it really adds to the believability of the environment. In certain scenes, you can even see part of the train move in the background with the sway of the train and it is amazing to see how it all comes together. The cinematography by Kyung-pyo Ho, who has previously worked with Bong on his 2009 film, Mother, does an amazing job breathing life into the world in and around the train. My only nitpick is that during some action scenes, the camera would start to shake for no reason, but fortunately the frame was consistently wide enough, so I can still see what was going on. The effects are very good; we get some occasional glimpses of the train’s exterior, and the CG work looks great. However a longer look at the CG shots do make them come off as a little too smooth and unnatural. There is one shot in particular that didn’t look too great but given that it is a spoilery moment, I can’t say what it is. Let’s just say it involves the protein bars.
The direction and writing by Bong Joon-ho (as well as co-writer, Kelly Masterson) does a superb job throwing you in a bleak, and confining environment. The intensity is built up very well through simple yet effective storytelling, with the mystery of Wilfred unfolding like something out of a BioShock game. The film plays with the concept of having a train’s citizens being an allegory of the modern state of society. It’s also deals with various themes from the exploration on the morality of leadership, totalitarianism, the importance of freedom. Even the Wilford character feels like a character out of the books of Ayn Rand, though the first thing I thought of was Andrew Ryan’s character from BioShock (which is why I made the initial comparison), but they’re basically the same. In short, the film is about society, it’s about people and it takes an interesting perspective on the human condition, even if some of the ideas are things I’ve seen before. There is a lot of food for thought, as the screenplay balances its allegory and satire with its action/thriller story with ease. The film also does well with adding some humor, which lightens up certain moments without taking away the gloominess and suspense. Again, the only things I could complain about the script are nitpicks, most of which are some lines here and there that come off as a bit cheesy. They didn’t bother me too much, but I can see how the tacky dialogue might bother other people.
Snowpiercer is a masterpiece. It is the best dystopian film since Terry Gilliam’s 1985 opus, Brazil. It is dark, bleak, stylish, eccentric, challenging, uncompromising and brutal. The film takes it’s rather outlandish high concept and elevates it with smart writing and directing, along with some excellent performances. A fantastic score by Marco Beltrami definitely helps too. The themes explored in the film are universal and hold a sense of relevancy to our society, and the film perfectly balances intelligent storytelling with a mainstream blockbuster appeal that is as weird as it is unflinching. It’s the kind of film that will be viewed and discussed in film schools and amongst film buffs for years, not just for its thought provoking ideas, but for its sheer excellence in filmmaking. Topping it all off, the film makes for a fantastic (if hard to follow-up) English-language debut for Bong Joon-ho.
Side Note: If you haven’t seen any of Bong Joon-ho’s films, I highly recommend them. Also, I have not read the graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette and Benjamin Legrand, but the film has given me an interest in checking out the original source material. An English translation has recently been released, most likely to coincide with the domestic release of the film. Another interesting fact, related more to Chris Evans is his recent announcement that he will retire from acting once his Marvel contract is over and start directing. He currently has his directorial debut in post-production at the moment called 1:30 Train. It’s a romance film that stars him alongside Alice Eve and Mark Kassen in a supporting role. There’s currently no release date, but it will most likely be later this fall or early next year. Hopefully Chris Evans can deliver from behind the camera as well as he can in front of it.