Parasite‘s ground-breaking victory at the Academy Awards has opened up the creative talents of South Korean director Bong-Joon Ho to the wider world. What it has also done is given his older films a platform in which to finally get the audience they deserve. So proves the case with Snowpiercer, a film from 2013 which has been the subject of various distribution wranglings over the years. This is arguably Ho’s most accessible film, being 80% English language prominent, but it contains themes prevalent in many of his other South Korean works.
The film takes place in a dystopic future, 2031. Most of Earth has been frozen after an ill-fated attempt to eradicate global warming goes spectacularly wrong. The remaining survivors are now permanently stationed onboard a rattling train, divided into several carriages, defined by class. In the lower bowels, a revolution is underway, as Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) prepares to lead his fellow passengers to the upper, more privileged carriages. The orchestrator of the coup is Gilliam (John Hurt), whose plan is to awaken the train’s cryogenically frozen engineer Namgoong (Song Kang Ho) so he can override the door controls and press forward. Also in the group are Nam’s daughter Yona (Ko Asung), hothead Edgar (Jamie Bell), frightened mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and desperate father Andrew (Ewen Bremner). Meanwhile, the train’s mysterious leader sends the cruel-tonged Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) to dispel the rabblers, a decision which tips the scales in Curtis’ favour.
Snowpiercer is based on the French novel ‘La Transpercenegie’, and acts as an allegory of mankind’s attempts to interfere in nature. To combat global warming, various countries have attempted climate engineering, which has engulfed the world in a second ice age. Ho sets the film’s prologue in 2014, thus creating a topical and timely opening with which to introduce the story. In the future, those on board the train are either survivors, or ‘train babies’. Class struggle lies primarily at the heart of the film, as Minister Mason describes in a sequence that pushes the boundaries between privilege and desperation. The survivors in Curtis’ carriage are forced to eat protein cubes and live in cramped quarters, pushed into acts of violence in an attempt to overthrow Wilford’s despot rule. Totalitarianism is the way of life, control is the key word and food and water are the currency- as in the outside world, the gap between rich and poor is separated not by division, but by society.
Ho’s film owes a debt of inspiration to the works of Terry Gilliam (hence John Hurt’s character’s name), the director of such surrealist fare as Brazil and Twelve Monkeys. Like with Gilliam’s films, Snowpiercer has a storyline that contorts and twists, characters that subvert expectations and a sliver of dry, sardonic humour. However, Ho doesn’t use Gilliam as a direct comparator. Instead, he applies his usual themes of structural decay, societal discourse and the gulf between the haves and the have-nots- all subject matters he once again addresses in Parasite. Snowpiercer isn’t easy to classify. While it is inherently a sci-fi, it’s too dense and obtuse to be readily identifiable as such. In many ways, it demands more from its audience than simply being swept up in the action.
That’s not to say that Snowpiercer doesn’t have its fair share of action and suspense- they are present in abundance. Despite the limitations of his environment, Ho stages a number of innovative and surprising set pieces, including a vicious brawl staged from first-person perspective through night-vision goggles, a shootout in a classroom (each carriage represents a core pillar of life, such as education, reproduction and leisure), and a particularly gruesome moment as a character’s arm is shattered by some sharp-looking machinery. These moments ring true and leave a lasting impression not just in visceral terms, but on a dramatic level as well. As the film reaches its climax, Curtis discusses some of the horrible things he’s done since boarding the train, many of which reveal the utter hopelessness he has often felt. His humanity has been tested to its very limits, linking back to the class war at the centre of the movie.
From a visual perspective, Snowpiercer looks extraordinary. The cinematography of Hong Kyung-pyo captures both beauty and ugliness, desolation and restructure- compare the breath-taking aquarium, a feat of genius matched only by its impossibility, with the bodies frozen in the snow and the concentration camp style of the early carriages. The Blu-ray disc, the first time the film has received a wide release in the UK, accentuates Ho’s visionary prowess. The film’s musical score, credited to Marco Beltrami, is equally as impressive, echoing the work of Jerry Goldsmith in Alien, with nods to James Horner and John Williams for good measure.
The cast of Snowpiercer is comprised of well-known names and Ho regulars and the performances are universally strong. As Curtis, Chris Evans is taken to places far beyond what is expected of him as Captain America, playing at times someone who seems to be teetering on the brink of madness. Evans has struggled to shake off his superhero alter-ego- this film is a reminder of his talents. South Korean cast members Song Kang Ho and Ko Asung share a genuine and believable chemistry as father and daughter, two characters initially written as comical who come across as much more rounded- Kang Ho also plays the lead role in Parasite. Tilda Swinton, in a role originally intended for John C. Reilly, adopts a Yorkshire accent, and sits just the right side of hammy, complete with prosthetic teeth. Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner play characters put through physical and emotional wringers. The late John Hurt displays his usual talent of elevating all the scenes he appears in and he even has time to show off his skills with false limbs. Finally, Ed Harris has an important appearance to make, but he is deliberately held back for narrative reasons. Alison Pill, Vlad Ivanov and Luke Pasqualino complete the core cast.
In direct contrast to a lot of other so called action thrillers, Snowpiercer is a small blockbuster with brains, brawn and beauty. Riding the coattails of its director’s awards success, Lionsgate has finally given this film, an unfortunate victim of Hollywood interference, the chance to shine on the global stage. It’s not a complete home run, floored by narrative and tonal issues and an inelegant ending, but it’s quintessential Bong. Anybody put off by subtitles can use this as an introduction to his world, and find out why he was able to make Oscar history.
Dir: Bong-Joon Ho
Scr: Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson
Prd: Jeong Tae-sung, Steven Nam, Park Chan-wook, Lee Tae-hun
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ko Asung, Alison Pill, Vlad Ivanov, Luke Pasqualino, John Hurt, Ed Harris
Music: Marco Beltrami
DOP: Hong Kyung-pyo
Run Time: 126 minutes
Snowpiercer is on Blu-ray™ and DVD 25 May 2020 from Lionsgate UK