To battle the increased problem of global warming on the planet, scientists decide the only way to combat the issue is to fire a chemical, CW-7, into the atmosphere to cool it. However the plan backfires as the chemical freezes the entire planet, causing the entire human race to become extinct and the planet uninhabitable. The only survivors are a group of people who are riding a giant train, that is forever in motion and is totally self sufficient. The massive train (that is at minimum twenty carriages long) travels across the entire world, where one cycle takes an entire year to complete. For the past eighteen years that life has existed on the train, a class system has been created where the poor and desperate are stuck in the back of the train; cramped, hungry and overcrowded, while the further up the train, the rich and entitled enjoy the benefits of the luxury vehicle. The poor have had enough, and a revolution is about to begin, as Curtis, Edgar and the rest of the able bodied prepare themselves to attempt, through violence, to get to the front of the train and take control of its engine; a task that has never been achieved.
So goes the story for Bong Joon-Ho’s latest film, “Snowpiercer” and his first shot in English. It has taken a very long time to finally be able to see this film (thanks mainly to the Weinstein’s) as it was initially one of my most anticipated films of 2013. Sadly a release in English speaking countries did not eventuate in 2013, (although the film was released in Asia and parts of Europe), but now the film has finally been released on dvd in France, giving everybody the chance to see it. Just like all of Bong Joon-Ho’s films, it is immediately obvious that “Snowpiercer” has been impeccably made. It seems to be true that this man is incapable of delivering a bad movie, and the change of language has hurt him none. The film is based on a French comic book entitled "Le Transperceneige" and is basically a story about class warfare; the haves versus the have not’s. But the strength of “Snowpiercer” is that it is a whole lot more than this, being full of subtext and depth that becomes more and more obvious as the film goes along. In fact the film examines many themes and issues that have been beautifully layered into the film so that at no point does the film become preachy. Class warfare is just the beginning, with the use of over-saturated propaganda being explored and how a constant message being delivered is able to pollute a person’s mind if that is the only message being delivered. For the majority of the film, the inhabitants of the train are constantly told that they need the train to survive, however if they really stood back and thought about it, the opposite is actually the truth. Bong Joon-Ho ends up presenting a reality on the train that is actually a microcosm of the world we live in today, particularly looking at how the rich and powerful get all the benefits from the work that the poor and needy have to do in an attempt to just survive. While “Snowpiercer” is filled with interesting ideas, Bong Joon-Ho never loses sight of keeping the film as entertaining as possible, so even if you do not pick up on any of the social commentary within the film, it is easily enjoyed as a fantastic action film.
The first thing that you notice when watching “Snowpiercer” is its visual style and just how dark and depressing it is. Because we are in the company of the less fortunate at the back of the train, the colour has been completely drained with only browns, grays and blacks being dominate. Everything is dirty, overcrowded and falling apart. It is an area not fit for any human to live, and yet they are packed in like sardines. The look of the place gives you a sense of just how desperate these people are and how oppressed also. However, as Curtis and company make their way up the train, they are suddenly hit with an explosion of colour when they enter the luxury carriages designed for the rich. From this moment on, “Snowpiercer” dazzles in its colour and set design, as every room becomes a visual delight; each so different from the one that came before it. Despite being gorgeously stylized, the look of the carriages towards the front of the train, also highlights just how disgusting the back is. The contrast is obvious as the rich have everything from a carriage designed for teaching their kids, pools, a sauna, glamorous restaurants, a nightclub, even an aquarium, if you can believe that.
The performances within “Snowpiercer” are all very impressive, which is a great credit to Bong Joon-Ho who obviously is directing a language that he is not fluent in. Chris Evans plays the main character of Curtis, casting that I was initially hesitant towards, but he is brilliant and shows a range and depth of emotions I was totally unaware he was capable of. At the start of the film, Curtis is full of rage and determination; his myopic vision is focused in righting what he believes is wrong on the train and making sure everyone gets a fair go. He appears to have a mantra of having to just keep going, no matter what happens, he must make it to the front of the train. However, as the twists and turns of the film become apparent and Curtis learns he may just be a pawn in a whole bigger event, Evans has to imbue his character with a whole different set of emotions. Disappointment, betrayal, even temptation are all things he must convey and he does so brilliantly. It is really hard to believe that this is the same actor who plays Captain America. Tilda Swinton on the other hand is known to be a terrific actress, and usually quite a serious one too, but she is hilarious in her role as Mason, the train’s second in charge. She is also unrecognizable with her decayed teeth and her pompous hair style, and ridiculous dress sense. Swinton is really over the top in the role, but amazingly it works perfectly for the film. The fact that Bong Joon-Ho cast two Korean actors for the characters who are most in tune with what is happening in the world made me chuckle. He cast one of his regular and favourite actors, Song Kang-Ho, as Namgoong Minsu (who was the creator of the security systems on the train) and brilliantly paired him with Ko Ah-Sung as his daughter, Yona. What is so cool about this is that these two actors played father and daughter previously in Bong Joon-Ho’s “monster” hit from 2006, “The Host”, although their roles here could not be more different. In that earlier film, Song Kang-Ho was a bumbling idiot and the comedy relief of the film, but here he is a drug addict, suffering the pain and loneliness from the loss of his wife. It is a much more serious role here and he pulls it off effortlessly. As I said though, everyone is great with John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris and Octavia Spencer all impressing in their meaty roles.
One aspect of “Snowpiercer” that I loved is that it was an extremely brutal film, but not just in terms of the violence. No one is safe in this film, and death could come from anywhere. You may think that because a character has been set up and played by a name actor that you could work out if they would survive the film or not, but Bong Joon-Ho does not play by these rules at all. Any of his characters can die at a seconds notice, but the brutality comes in the fact that these deaths are not dwelled upon. They must keep going, they cannot stop and so they cannot afford to mourn the deaths of their friends, which gives the film a very cold emotional resonance at times. However, it also keeps the viewer on edge because you know early on that Bong Joon-Ho is not afraid of killing off any of his characters. In regards to the film’s many action scenes, they have all been fantastically staged and importantly each one comes across as different; from the fight in the dark, to the graphic brawl with the face covered bandits, to the amazingly tense battle in the sauna; Bong Joon-Ho excels in these scenes. They are also quite graphic in their violence but never to the point of overkill.
Overall, “Snowpiercer” is another fantastic film from South Korean director, Bong Joon-Ho. As well as being a terrific action/adventure type picture, “Snowpiercer” is also imbued with a deep social relevance with many topics and issues explored within, however never to the detriment of the entertainment of the film. Bong Joon-Ho does a fantastic job of balancing the issues and themes of the films by never making them too heavy. While this review may not indicate it as such, “Snowpiercer” has a number of twists and turns in it, that I am unable to talk about, that really make the film stand out from the rest of the pack. It is also a film that doesn’t cheat, in that after certain twists, scenes (and characters) suddenly take on different meaning and yet when you go back and watch earlier scenes with this new knowledge you can see that Bong Joon-Ho had directed these scenes with the truth in mind. This is superior entertainment here and is a film I have no problem recommending to everyone.