The latest film from Bong Joon-ho arrives with a very strange staggered release schedule, indicative of the reported tension between Bong and the Weinsteins. However the film has finally arrived on US shores, which is cause for celebration. Bong is the notable director of some of the best Korean films in recent years (Mother, Memories of Murder), a practitioner of a cerebral style reminiscent of a David Fincher. He newest, the international Snowpiercer, is a deliberate, intelligent take on the conceit driven action film. Despite the isolation and linearity imposed by placing the entire film on a train, Snowpiercer is an extremely creative and varied film that engages completely.
Similar to Bong’s own The Host, man’s poor handling of the environment has led to apocalyptic crisis. Now, the last of humanity huddles aboard a train called the Snowpiercer, the train cars acting as both their salvation and prison. Much of the sundry of humanity has gone “extinct,” the word used for out or gone by the train passengers. However, many things made it onboard, not the least of which is the political power struggles endemic to mankind. The train is a sovereign nation presided over by the authoritarian conductor/engineer/CEO Wilford, and under his reign the passengers have been rigidly classified. The lowest class is sent to rot in the rear of the train eating protein paste and bearing boot treads. The rear car ruffians are populated with a surprisingly deep roster; Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, and Octavia Spencer play characters adapting to rough circumstance but who all are waiting for revolution.
Bong’s previous film, Mother, was a careful study in pacing. Secrets and actions were doled out persistently leaving no fallow period, and this talent is on display in Snowpiercer as well. The narrative is driven by the central mysteries which remain obfuscated till the end, but the action begins almost immediately. The conceit, adapted from a French graphic novel, ensures that each new train car clearly denotes progress, as in another structure action film, the Raid. However, whereas that film promised only another cement corridor soon to be bullet ridden, each new train car on the Snowpiercer reveals a little bit more about how the train works, how humanity is surviving, and how the society is organized. In this respect the journey towards the enigmatic Wilford, spoken of with reverence by some of his subjects, more closely resembles Apocalypse Now. Of course containing the entirety of humanity with our quibbles and flaws of a train is also an absurd proposition, and Bong isn’t afraid to revel in the humor and awkwardness of these situations. Tilda Swinton and Alison Pill both dominate their scenes as faithful cogs that hold complete belief in the system.
Stark contrasts and oddity flavor the dish, but the film works as well as it does thanks to the multiple thematic gears. On one level, the afore mentioned structure of the film gives it great impulse. Sheer curiosity drives much of the environment as Bong uses a show-don’t-tell approach to his world building, allowing for surprisingly quiet moments in what could have easily been constant video game carnage. Secondly, the script is ahum with ideas about the nature of political structure. In another director’s hands, the populist imagery of an underclass revolution would probably be viewed as implicitly positive. Though the rear passengers are clearly brutalized by the Wilford regime, Bong layers their conduct with shades of ambiguity. The least revealing thing I can say would be to mention the violence, a necessary part of a bloody revolution. Rather than revel in righteous slaughter with even handed portrayal of attrition, as say Braveheart, Snowpiercer’s violence is uncharacteristically grim, portraying almost everyone involved as bloodlusted animals. To Bong’s credit, he does this with relatively little blood or 300-style “money shots,” instead emphasizing the violence and chaos aurally and fast cutting just as axes hit flesh, like the viewer is unconsciously blinking in shock. In addition, the nature of the political system is often questioned. Some actors are simply reacting to the necessity of the resource sparse environment, where others personify Kissinger power arguments. At every turn Snowpiercer drives home the fact that governments operating without infinite resources have to make crappy decisions. The train absolutely needs the lower class to exist but only functions if the upper class stays exclusively small as well. Although the film has a viewpoint, it refreshingly questions every avenue. Finally, a few choice scenes suggest that the film can also be read meta-textually, although it is difficult to relate prior to your viewing. It must be sufficient to say then, that Chris Evans with his superhero baggage is in a way perfectly cast as the grimly determined single minded protagonist.
Snowpiercer integrates all of these ideas into a single amazing film, bringing Bong’s thoughtful attention to detail to a snappy and entertaining conceit. The world building is top notch too, which can often overtake a production such as the impressive but single minded Pacific Rim, a film from a director who also used to be regarded as a foreign visionary. With Snowpiercer, Bong has given an impressive defense for his position in the upper ranks even as he tries to blow up the conventional action thriller.