I became aware of the name Bong Joon-ho almost a decade ago when I watched a film that changed my life. It was a serial killer murder mystery that was so far away from the style of Hollywood, and so tense, gritty and audacious it cost me several nights of sleep. It was called Memories of Murder. The horror fan in me experienced some sort of a renaissance, and I grabbed friends by their collars and made them watch the film. Thanks to Memories of Murder coupled with another little one called Oldboy which I’d seen a week earlier, my love for Korean movies had well and truly crystallized.
Naturally, since then I proceeded to watch every single motion picture made by Joon-ho and Park Chan Wook. So when I got to know that these two titans were colliding for a single project called Snowpiercer, a crossover English language film, a science fiction action thriller, based on a popular graphic novel, my nerdingles glowed like fireflies. This is what I’d been waiting for all these years. And when I got to know that the producers of the film, the Weinsteins, were doing their best to chop the runtime and scuttle the film’s release, a volcano erupted in Jupiter. I was enraged beyond belief. But thanks to screenings at film festivals and the magic of the internet, fanboy rage was assuaged.
Snowpiercer now had a new problem. With so much emotional baggage and history attached to it, would it actually live up to its expectations? Let’s just say Joon-ho runs a whole train over all foreseeable doubts. This is an ambitious, intense, dark, brutal and consistently hypnotic motion picture, with all the intelligence and paranoid elements you expect from the likes of both Joon-ho and Chan-wook. It does to post apocalyptic sci fi films what Memories of Murder did to serial killer thrillers.
Set entirely in a grimy, hideously ravaged train, Snowpiercer is an adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. I have not read the book so I can't comment on how close the film is to its source material, but it is clearly evident that the film adaptation stands on its own.
The world has ended thanks to a muddled up attempt at reversing global warming. The only human survivors on Earth are rolled up together in a self-replenishing train that hurtles across the globe. Now here’s the twisted part: To maintain the balance of nature, the head honchos of the train divide the humans into various compartments, with the poorest thrown in the back of the train in one single compartment. Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) has had enough and plans a revolution to take over the engine.
Everything I've divulged takes place in the first five minutes of the movie. The introductory scenes are as compelling as anything in Snowpiercer, and the movie really starts to roll after Curtis and his friends start crushing their way through to the front of the train.
Not content to present a simple cat-and-mouse chase and fight scenes, Joon-ho repeatedly subverts your expectations and plays a few tricks on us as well.
As he goes deeper and deeper in the train Curtis finds himself tangled in a web of lies and deceit. There is a scene much like the one where Neo meets the architect in The Matrix, except the choice here is far more devastating for Curtis. Through Curtis the film asks you a series of questions: how far would you go to maintain the natural harmony? Who are we to define classism and separate humans in order of necessity? And if necessity calls for it, would you corrupt yourselves to indulge in a totalitarian regime because it is for the good of the society? Would you sacrifice a few hundred humans to save a few thousand? Curtis’ revolution soon becomes a curse to him as he is unable to acclimate to all of this. You’ll be as strung out and helpless as Curtis by the time you’re done with the questions the film poses.
The final cut runs two plus hours but if it ran another hour I doubt you'd hear much complaining. Joon-ho raises a number of themes and it’d have been great if he’d explored them further. Especially because unlike in stuff like Elysium, the class divide issue here is pretty engaging. And it’s not for the faint hearted because the social commentary here is pretty fucked up.
There are a few exciting fight sequences, best of which features a tunnel and axe murderers, but for the most part Snowpiercer is all about exchanges of intense dialogue. A lot of what happens in the train echoes the unspeakable horrors North Korea and the film boldly relies on character dynamics instead of visual exposition.
And yet the film is visually stunning, the atmosphere painstakingly created to make it look like a dirty fast moving train. There are a ton of visual cues that don’t register in the first viewing. In one scene a goon dips his axe in fish blood – I had to rewatch this and Google the fish to understand the significance of the scene. Adding to the film is the uniformly excellent cast, with Chris Evans in his most effective performance since Sunshine. And with Sunshine and now Snowpiercer Evans has appeared in two sci fi cult classics. Song Kang ho, the regular in both Joon Ho’s and Chan Wook’s films has a key role as a stoner with the keys to all the train doors. Both Ed Harris and Tilda Swinton have proved in the past that they have the chops for villainous performances, and here they bring a clarity and logic to their characters that make the antagonists all the more fascinating.
Snowpiercer is a tremendous accomplishment, one of those rare smart thrillers that make you gawp excitedly. It’s not just a movie, it’s a reason to celebrate great cinema and to grab your friends by their collars and make them watch it.
(First published in DNA)