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All the world’s a train, and all the men and women are merely passengers — a twist on one of William Shakespeare’s most oft-recited lines could serve well as a summation of director Bong Joon-ho’s latest film. An adaptation of the cult French comic book series Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer is an epic yet nuanced, contemplative yet entertaining vehicle that uses its titular locomotive as an allegory for human existence as we see it in the here and now.
Boasting a stellar cast that will certainly help open doors to the international market — with the presence of Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer and Alison Pill to whip up the interest of U.S. filmgoers, and Tilda Swinton and John Hurt to cement the film’s art house credentials — Snowpiercer sees Bong maintaining his own artistic grip on the proceedings.
Veering away from mainstream narrative tropes — romance doesn’t even get a look-in during the (male) protagonist’s quest, a departure from the original French bande desinee — the South Korean director, who is most well known internationally for his monster hit The Host, presents a unique vision of a despairing present channeled through a dystopian future. Expanding beyond the scope of his former films — servings that taste best when one’s frame of reference includes South Korea’s recent history — Snowpiercer is an ambitious piece with a universally comprehensible theme and accessible aesthetics.
The viewer is basically thrust into the thick of things right from the start, with tensions aboard Snowpiercer — a perpetually moving convoy carrying Earth’s only remaining human inhabitants — on the verge of boiling over as a result of segregation between the elite, living in comfort in the front carriages, and the impoverished masses huddled in the rear cars — a “preordained” order designed by the locomotive’s owner, Wilford (Ed Harris).
Seventeen years have passed since the world has frozen over — a result of an experiment to combat global warming gone very wrong — and the oppressed masses are plotting to break out from their confinement. The raid on the front cars is led by Curtis (Evans) and the younger Edgar (Jamie Bell), with the bespectacled, one-armed elder Gilliam (Hurt) serving as the sage and conscience of the whole operation.
Winning an initial skirmish and breaking through the first gates, the revolutionaries are soon joined by Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho, a longtime collaborator with Bong), the solitarily confined security expert who created the train’s inter-carriage protective doors, and his teenage daughter, Yona (Ko Ah-sung, who played the daughter-in-peril opposite Song in The Host). And forward they move, with Curtis’ professed aim of subverting the class system by taking over the means of locomotion: “All past revolutions failed because they didn’t take the engine — now we’ll take the engine,” he says. It’s a politically charged, Marxist-inflected remark that lays the groundwork for Snowpiercer’s gradual exposé of the savage, alienation-spawning modus operandi of modern-day capitalism.
In a conceit that recalls Dante’s journey through the afterlife in his Divine Comedy, Bong sets the Snowpiercer locomotive up as a horizontal journey from Inferno to Paradise, with the protagonists trekking past representations of the unsavory episodes of recent history that we now know well.
In the hellish parts of the train, a shoe is thrown at a loathed figurehead, here personified by Wilford’s spineless lieutenant, Mason (Swinton); scenes depict the poor being fed with (literally) junk — and loving it; and infrared goggles-wearing soldiers mete out deadly violence upon skimpily armed resisters. Moving further up the train, there are scenes of pseudo-paradise: the affluent knitting, drinking tea, swimming, getting top-notch dental treatment and drinking champagne in a discotheque – all signs of hypocrisy and excess as the train careens forward through icy, barren landscapes.
Bong’s vivid depictions — aided by Ondrej Nekvasil’s production design, Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography and Steve M. Choe’s editing — are exceptional, adding to a film that is as much about philosophical reflections of an age of social and moral collapse as it is about blockbuster-friendly, CGI-enhanced sequences. (In fact, one of the flaws of this film is the CGI, which does look sub-par in places.)
As it stands, Snowpiercer is still an intellectually and artistically superior vehicle to many of the end-of-days futuristic action thrillers out there. But while the references to real-life atrocities should certainly resonate with international audiences, the overt ways in which Bong hammers his points home actually make the film less powerful than the more layered political allegories of his previous films like Memories of Murder and The Host.
Still, Snowpiercer remains a riveting ride, and Bong is now poised for the foreign breakthrough that has eluded his fellow South Korean directors Kim Jee-won (The Last Stand) and Park Chan-wook (who encouraged Bong to adapt the property and served as a producer on the film). Just like his onscreen gate-cracking alter-ego Nam, Bong has opened doors and revealed a pretty disturbing status quo of a disheveled world, an infernal hell into which humankind has plummeted; the question is whether this species actually deserves to be saved. Adeptly shaped up for the screen, it’s a point that makes Bong’s film deserving of praise.
Production companies: CJ Entertainment, Moho Films, Opus Picture and Stillking Films
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Ko Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Ed Harris
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Screenwriters: Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson, based on the comic Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette
Producers: Jeong Tae-sung, Lee Tae-hun, Steven Nam, Park Chan-wook, Robert Bernacchi, Choi Doo-ho, David Minkowski, Matthew Stillman
Director of photography: Hong Kyung-pyo
Production designer: Ondrej Nekvasil
Costume designer: Catherine George
Music: Marco Beltrami
Editor: Steve M. Choe
Art Director: Stefan Kovacik