Snowpiercer (2013)

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Bullet train of social unrest in a frozen world

Bong Joon-ho, the Korean director who has explored a different genre with originality and class each time in his Memories of MurderThe Host, and Mother, does it again with the post-apocalyptic mode in Snowpiercer. Made for a change for such a film quite outside the studio system, Le Transperceneige (the source French graphic novel’s original title) is a gruelling and ambitious epic with strong anti-authoritarian political overtones. Claustrophobic and tumultuous, it succeeds brilliantly despite being Bong’s first film not in his native language.

Any similarity to the routine summer Hollywood blockbuster of planetary destruction and human extinction is purely coincidental — this on the contrary is the work of a gifted, vibrant and humane auteur fully committed and at the height of his powers. It resembles nothing else, though it owes a strong stylistic debt to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and may evoke the many movies whose main action takes place on a train, though never has a cinematic train been like this. Familiar faces in the cast constitute a dream team that will attract and charm audiences. A minus may be how talky and philosophical and political the movie is, but that is also where some of the best scenes come, particularly when they involve John Hurt or Ed Harris.

Snowpiercer all takes place in a super-long luxury train racing around a frozen planet one cycle per year carrying several thousand people. The passengers represent all that’s left of the human population, following an experiment to combat global warming chemically that went fatally far in the opposite direction. The train pierces through snow and ice; if it were to stop racing around it would freeze up and all inside would die, as the bulk of the earth’s population did 18 years ago. On board a rigid class structure is maintained with the train run as a closed eco-system. A man named Wilford (Ed Harris), the inventor, builder, and owner of the train, reigns over it like a monarch, housed at the front end, and the poor and downtrodden masses are confined to the back as an abysmal slave-like steerage class. In between an haute bourgeoisie, whose world is revealed to us only later, lives it up with hair dressers, couture clothes, superior dental care, elegant meals of gourmet food, dancing, partying, and drug orgies, while the proles live in cramped squalor and near-famine, fed a skimpy diet of black protein-jelly cakes made from the carcasses of dead insects.

Periodically the poor, who provide the focus and p.o.v. of the film’s gritty, intense early section, have their children measured and taken away for an uncertain and doubtless grim purpose. Most painfully the half-blind Tanya (Octavia Spencer) loses her sprightly five-year-old Tim (Marcanthonee Reis) this way, and joins the revolution to get him back. The rear-of-the-train class is periodically coached in submission and worship of Wilford and his deified engine by Mason (Tilda Swinton in fake buck teeth and big glasses, a stylised toady-villain impersonation she says she based on Margaret Thatcher).

The basic plot line involves collaboration between the angry (and as we learn later deeply troubled) young revolutionary leader Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fiery cohort Edgar (Jamie Bell). They consult with the elder statesman Gilliam (John Hurt, his character’s name doubtless a homage to Terry) on how to overthrow the rigid and repressive social order. There are mysteries, because just as Wilford has never been to the back of the train, none of those in the back have seen exactly what’s up front. A key will be to find out if Mason’s recent command of “put that useless weapon down” to a guard was a giveaway that the ruling class has run out of ammunition, which would mean this time a revolt has a better chance than earlier attempts.

Clearly a takeover will involve moving quickly forward through the train, bypassing a series of locks. The key to this is imprisoned Korean security expert Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho), who devised the lock system. He, like his daughter Yona (Ko Asung), is addicted to the drug kronole. Song and Ko here reprise their relationship inThe Host. Song, who has a large fan base and has acted in films by Park Chang-wook, who co-produced here, as well, exudes world-weary charisma that makes him one of the most powerful presences. Though everybody else speaks English, Bong carries off the feat of having Song speak only Korean without its being distracting — another way this film is quite sui generis. Strong acting oviously is as key an element in the power of Snowpiercer as its unique concept and rich mise-en-scène. Some think Chris Evans, known for his squeaky-clean Captain America roles, can’t quite hold his own in the company of all these ace character actors. But Evans is quite different here, dirty, unshaven, in a watch cap, and projects a repressed passion that emerges well in several key moments. The late encounter between Curtis and Wilford is a stunning and thought-provoking surprise. As for the mise-en-scène, involving a remarkable long sequence of connected sets constructed in a Czech sound stage, these help enliven and vary the film as it unfolds, moving from monochromatic and dark in the early back-of-the-train scenes to brighter and brighter ones in the upper class world, including besides Ed Harris’ tete-a-tete with Evans in Wilford’s austere silvery digs, a bright-coloured crazy-Disney classroom sequence with Alison Pill as the high-pitched teacher. A criticism is that the frozen landscape views show lesser than top-grade CGI, but this hardly matters, given the gloriously psychedelic interiors and may even enhance our sense of the dreamlike unreality of the now lost world.

It’s a mark of the unique flavour of this film that the intense confab between the two men goes on while there is all sorts of turbulent struggling-to-the-death going on in other parts of the train, whose elaborate structure is ideally suited for a movie that happens on many levels simultaneously, and without confusion. Snowpiercer may feel like a crazy white elephant at first, but you walk out feeling you’ve witnessed some kind of masterpiece.

DIRECTORS: BONG JOON-HO
WRITERS: BONG JOON-HO, KELLY MASTERSON
STARS: CHRIS EVANS, JOHN HURT, TILDA SWINTON, SONG KANG-HO, JAMIE BELL, ED HARRIS, OCTAVIA SPENCER, ALLISON PILL
RUNTIME: 1267 MIN
COUNTRY: SOUTH KOREEA, USA, FRANCE, CZECH REPUBLIC

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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