Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, with five features and a handful of shorts to his credit, has created one of the most formidable, idiosyncratic, and commercially successful bodies of work in world cinema. Bong is incredibly versatile stylistically, offering unique twists on genres, from the murder mystery without a solution of Memories of Murder (2003) to the big-budget monster movie The Host (2006) and the moody psychological thriller Mother (2009). Despite the variety of subject matter and dramatic/comedic modes in his films, they retain a unique consistency of style and a personal stamp that hasn’t been diminished by the increasing scope and budgets of his productions.
With his latest film, Snowpiercer, based on a 1982 French graphic novel, Bong has embarked on his largest production to date, an international US-South Korea-France co-production shot in the Czech Republic, which at $40 million is the biggest budgeted film ever for the Korean film industry. It’s also his first (mostly) English language feature, boasting an international cast.
The potential danger of this was that the grand scale and the commercial pressures would make Snowpiercer a compromised, watered-down version of the great qualities that marked Bong’s previous work. It is a pleasure to report, then, that Bong emerges from all this with his artistic integrity and audaciousness fully intact. Snowpiercer is a formally brilliant, sharp depiction of class differences, with humor sitting side by side with brutal violence and poignant emotion, making it completely congruent with Bong’s previous films.
Snowpiercer has a quite literal narrative drive, as it is set almost entirely on an endlessly moving train in a dystopian future. The time is 2031. After a failed worldwide experiment to halt global warming fails, the world has been plunged into a new ice age, with an uninhabitable earth surface. The last surviving members of humanity now reside on a perpetually moving locomotive designed by a business tycoon named Wilford (Ed Harris), who is spoken of on the locomotive as almost a deity. The cars are set up on a rigidly class-defined basis, according to the wealth of the passengers. The upper classes live at the head, near the engine, where they enjoy the comfort and amenities that go along with their wealth. The poor live in grimy and cramped conditions in the back, where they are subjected to forced labor and brutally kept in their place by armed enforcers, led by the ruthless and punitive Mason (Tilda Swinton).
However, there is a revolution brewing, spearheaded by reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt). Curtis has a number of close allies, including Curtis’ right-hand man Edgar (Jamie Bell) and Tanya (Octavia Spencer), a mother looking for her missing child, abducted along with others for a nefarious purpose we don’t learn the nature of until late in the film.
To continue with the train-appropriate terminology, the main engine driving the plot concerns this band of revolutionaries’ efforts to get to the front of the train and wrest the controls from Wilford. Crucial to their mission is Namgoong Minsu (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), a jailed security expert who designed the train’s door-locking system. The revolutionaries free him, and along with his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung, who also played Song’s daughter in The Host), they breach the doors and make their way through the cars, one by one. They face increasingly violent resistance and brutal battles with the train’s enforcers of authority, suffering major casualties along the way.
Snowpiercer is clearly a parable of modern society. Even though the original story was written decades ago, it still remains relevant in the current parlance concerning societal inequality, the 99 percent versus the onepercent and such. In fact, it’s driven home here so relentlessly that it teeters on the verge of heavy-handedness. Still, it remains a potent enough allegory that elevates it well above the soulless action spectacles that litter movie screens this time of year.
While some of the CGI effects could have been more convincing and less obviously animated, this is still an impressively mounted production, showcasing the considerable talents of Bong’s collaborators. Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography, Ondrej Nekvasil’s production design, and Steve M. Choe’s editing are all top-notch, making a film that consists largely of confined spaces feel often breathtakingly dynamic and expansive.
The performances are also quite impressive. Chris Evans gives what is perhaps his best to date, as a reluctant hero who gradually reveals layers that complicate his character in quite a compelling way. Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell also shine in smaller roles which are less defined, yet they manage to suggest depths beyond what has been written for them. And although Swinton’s Mason, with her exaggerated accent and her outlandishly dismissive attitude toward those beneath her, threatens to be little more than a hammy cartoon, she still brings some off-kilter artistry during her relatively brief screen time.