With Snowpiercer, his English language debut, South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho presents a dystopian future where a man-made ice age has wiped out virtually all of humanity, leaving behind only the passengers of a locomotive that just continually travels the same track over and over again, all year round. If anyone gets off the train, they will freeze to death. If the train stops, they will all freeze to death.
Aboard the train is a perfect microcosm of society with the class system in full effect. The rich reside at the warm, luxuriant head of the train while the poor rattle around in the tail, with only their daily ration of ‘protein bricks’ to look forward to.
Sick and tired of being oppressed by the high society, the downtrodden lower classes at the back of the train are plotting an uprising, lead by Curtis (Chris Evans), his best friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt). Once they recruit unpredictable lock expert Nam (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) – who demand payment in narcotics for every gate they crack – the group begin their bloody charge to the front of the train. Tracking their progress is Mason (Tilda Swinton), a Margaret Thatcher-alike propaganda machine backed by an impressive army of vicious security guards trying to stop them making it to Willford, the billionaire engineer who built the train and keeps the engine running.
In the education section, a shrill school teacher, played brilliantly by Alison Pill, teaches the children all about Willford as if he were their God, even going so far as to sing hymns in his honour.
Based on a French graphic novel and enlivened by Bong’s offbeat style, Snowpiercer feels unlike anything else in cinemas in recent years. Each compartment of the train has a different function and Bong creates a different style and feel to the different segments, from the grubby tail end to the shiny lavishness of the nose. As the characters move through them, like levels of a video game, the story changes and evolves until the final revelations change things even further.
Along with the striking, memorable visuals – which include a brutally stunning fight scene between the opposing factions in a contained space – the film is also a provocative watch that asks big questions about social and moral responsibility, the costs of survival and what man is capable of doing to his fellow man. It’s a thoughtful and intellectual film packed with ideas that make it a richer experience beyond the more obvious action thrills and spills. It isn’t all completely grim though with plenty quirky humour to be found and some larger-than-life performances that garner some laughs.
The cast are generally strong, with Evans getting the chance to stretch his acting muscles a little more than his Captain America films allow, still commanding the screen but in a different way than we’re used to. His little seen indie Puncture showed Evans has chops and Snowpiercer just confirms he’s the real deal.
Elsewhere, Tilda Swinton walks off with many of the film’s best scenes in a big, hammy turn underneath a frightening set of false teeth and a Thatcher-esque wig while the likes of Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko round out an impressively global cast.
While his contemporaries in Korean cinema have made a modest start to their careers in the west – Kim Jeewoon with The Last Stand and Park Chan-Wook with Stoker – Bong’s jump to the English language has proved a successful one, retaining much of his style and sensibility to craft a dark, dystopian thriller that feels like no other.