Things are never black and white in Bong Joon-ho’s grey-tinted post-apocalyptic thriller
“Curtis, everyone has their preordained position, and everyone is in their place except you.”
I’ve covered Bong Joon-ho a couple of times before, and it seems to be that the first review of the year will be one of his films. My Railway Man review came a day late, but I still consider it a 2016 review. So what better way to bring in the New Year, and a new cycle on a perpetual train track (oh hey, Ken Takakura would like this), than with the traditional New Year’s Boiled Egg.
Set in the near-future, the Snowpiercer is a train that was built seventeen years in the past (the year 2013 according to the narration) after an attempt to reverse global warming caused the planet to enter another ice age. Everyone and everything on the planet is dead, except those lucky enough to have hopped on. The train is divided into classes, like trains tend to be, with the wealthy elite in the front, the “feeloaders” (as one character calls them) in the rear, and everyone else in the middle.
Curtis (Chris Evans) is one such freeloader, who with his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) is planning an uprising. He is helped by their leader Gilliam (John Hurt), who considers Curtis a worthy successor. When those in the Front kidnap children belonging to two passengers (Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner), they decide to enact their plan. However, in order to do that, they need to free a man named Namgoong (Song Kang-ho), who was once the security expert on the train. Rescuing him and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung), they begin their rebellion through the train, encountering the brutal but cowardly Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a murderous classroom teacher (Alison Pill), and a whole crew of balaclava’d men with axes, with one goal: take down Wilford (Ed Harris) the man who built the train.
Right off the bat, I’ll say that more than anything Snowpiercer is two hours of interesting visuals, characters and ideas. Director Bong Joon-ho succeeds in making a world that feels like it was ripped from the pages of a comic book, while keeping it wedged in reality. There’s enough strangeness – in design, speech and behaviour – that you’re forever kept from ever feeling comfortable. This is a good thing. People such as the completely bonkers Mason should have enough of a memory of the once-warm outside world, but have let life of the train take over. They’ve given in to this dystopian world which unlike some (usually young adult) fictional worlds, feels strangely real in its quirkiness.
This is most present in the film’s most standout element: the production design which successfully gives each carriage of the Snowpiercer life. There isn’t an inch of potential wasted here: small details are added generously throughout the entire train, which majorly helps sell the idea that these people have somehow managed to live there for so long. Most importantly, however, is the level of restraint that is present here. There are definitely levels of extravagance showcased throughout, especially as we journey closer and closer to the front of the train, but none of it delves too far into an absurd Hunger Games style. What we’re presented with here feels more genuine, realistic and – most importantly – human.
Because at the end of the day, humanity is what this film is all about. It never really defines any villains as people on either side of the train have done both good and bad things throughout their lives. Ed Harris’ Wilford does some terrible things for sure but as he states: the very fact that he built the one and only source of shelter for the rest of humanity and took in as many as he could gives him a couple of good guy points. Snowpiercer is an incredibly political film, and not as obviously as it might appear at first. There’s no Occupy analogy at play here: merely survival in the purest Darwinian form and the steps taken to ensure that balance is kept.
The screenplay (by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson) and by extension the graphic novel (though I’ve yet to read it so can’t be certain) goes to great lengths to show Chris Evans and Song Kang-ho’s characters as deluded and potentially villainous. Both have good ideas and a strong, revolutionary will to help their people but so does Wilford. Parallels are drawn throughout the film depicting the front and the back of the train as more similar than we might imagine. But I can’t pretend to be even remotely knowledgeable about political themes, and this is definitely not the site to go to for that.
However, these themes are strong and it’s down to Evans and the rest of the cast to bring these points across in their characters, which they do with a great deal of skill. Their talent in bringing out the worst parts of their roles lets the script breathe a bit. A lesser cast and writer would have bogged down the story with too much exposition and outwardly-spoken political themes. There’s enough subtlety in Snowpiercer that if you choose to ignore all of that and watch it as a straight-up action film, then that’s good as well. Anyone who’s seen a Bong Joon-ho film knows this is his style: just watch something like The Host, and you’ll see what I mean.
At the end of the day, Snowpiercer is a great piece of cinema and while it’s not Bong’s greatest film, the ranking is pretty close. It delivers in action, storytelling, characters, design and (ignoring some shady CGI) visuals. It’s a spectacle in every sense of the word and seems to be paving the wave for other great Korean train films.
Verdict: With solid performances, a tight script and gorgeous production design Snowpiercer is an assault on your senses in the best possible way
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Sequel ideas: The Grey, but Liam Neeson is two children
Ed Harris: A natural progression from The Truman Show
Snacks: I mean, roaches can’t be as bad as what they were eating before, surely?
Also known as: 설국열차; (Seolgookyeolcha)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writer: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson, Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette [graphic novel]
Chris Evans – Curtis Everett
Song Kang-ho – Namgoong Minsu
Go Ah-sung – Yona
Tilda Swinton – Minister Mason
Jamie Bell – Edgar
Octavia Spencer – Tanya
Ewen Bremner – Andrew
John Hurt – Gilliam
Ed Harris – Wilford
Luke Pasqualino – Grey
Alison Pill – Teacher
Vlad Ivanoc – Franco the Elder
Adnan Haskovic – Franco the Younger
Clark Middleton – Painter
Emma Levie – Claude
Tomas Lemarquiss – Egg-head