MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Snowpiercer’


Film: Snowpiercer
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-Ho

There’s a fight scene early on in Snowpiercer where a bunch of masked men wielding axes pause mid-carnage to ring in the new year. The titular train is hurtling across a bridge which marks the end of the annual circuit, so these hooded figures take time out of the fighting to count down from ten and pat some of their wounded comrades on the back. It’s a scene as utterly bizarre as it sounds – comedic, yes, but in a very precise and distinctive way it’s also completely chilling. It’s the first moment I remember being really shaken by Snowpiercer, the much-delayed English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho and one of the most truly striking films of this year.

Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer paints a bleak picture of a future Earth in which almost all life is extinct. In the early 21st century, we’re told, humanity released a chemical into the upper atmosphere that was intended to halt global warming. However, its effects were disastrous, plunging the Earth into a new ice age and killing almost every living thing on the planet. The few remaining human survivors live aboard the Snowpiercer, a train which circumnavigates the globe in a neverending loop. Its inhabitants are strictly divided by class, with the wealthy elite living in relative luxury at the front of the train and the poorer denizens confined in squalor at the back. After years of eking out a miserable existence, the so-called tail sectioners, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) attempt a coup, surging forward to take the train one car at a time.

If you’ve heard anything about Snowpiercer, it’s probably that the film has been massively delayed due to a dispute between Harvey Weinstein and director Bong. The former, whose company bought up the film early on, was adamant that it wouldn’t sell to an English-speaking audience in its existing form and insisted that it be trimmed by twenty minutes and have a voiceover added. Bong, bolstered by strong commercial showings in France and South Korea, refused. The ensuing standoff lasted for the better part of 18 months and means that the film, which was originally intended to roll out theatrically in 2013, is only receiving a limited US release now and has yet to be confirmed for a wider release in the UK or Ireland. This would be shameful for any film, but for one of the calibre and guttural impact of Snowpiercer, it’s a travesty.

That said, if the only thing that springs to mind when you think of this film is the aforementioned controversy, you may yet consider yourself lucky. The less you know going into this film, the better. Some unscrupulous person spoiled a key twist for me on Twitter and only after seeing the film did I realise, aghast, how utterly pivotal a moment she’d revealed. Spoiling things on the internet is nothing new, as we all know, but the complacency in her tweet confounded me, seeming completely at odds with the impact and power of this film. To be so blasé is to completely miss the point, as Snowpiercer is a tour-de-force, groundbreaking, truly breathtaking piece of art and cinema that may very well be looked upon in years to come as a game-changer in its genre.

For starters, its world-building is phenomenal. For a story that’s told so quickly and crisply, it creates an utterly convincing environment of its train setting, all dank claustrophobia and misery. It doesn’t spend ages on exposition. Aside from a brief pre-credits sliver of text, Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson provide little background to events, trusting the audience to keep up as they plunge forward at breakneck pace. It’s only in the final half hour or so that everything slows down a little, meaning that a great deal of Snowpiercer‘s plot and detail can only be savoured on further viewing. Few films are as trusting of or rewarding to repeat viewers as this one. Moments that seem like quiet, inconsequential asides on the first watch suddenly become hugely significant pieces of character-building, and thoughtful reflections in a brief moment of calm come to shed poignant light on shared histories and troubled consciences. In order to fully appreciate the wealth of world-building and careful characterisation you almost have to watch this more than once, and even after three or four viewings minutiae is revealed to enhance and enrich the story onscreen.

Director Bong is a powerful and uncompromising filmmaker, but his picture is also rich in subtlety. He infuses Snowpiercer with symbolism and iconography that bring a vivid, colourful life to this starkly oppressive world. Much of the political pageantry – particularly that embodied by Tilda Swinton‘s Mason – is so exaggerated as to be almost farcical, not unlike some of the wilder stories we hear coming out of dictatorships (not least, given the director’s nationality, North Korea). The class war has obvious real-world parallels but there’s so much more to the film’s use of allegory than that – there are meditations on society as well as the class divide, religion as well as delusion, necessity and political decision-making. The moralistic undertones are far from the black-and-white sensibilities you may perceive at the outset, and as the insurrection plunges forward you may find yourself, in tandem with the characters, beginning to question some of the realities and justifications presented.

The performances are completely stellar. Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Allison Pill, and Jamie Bell (doing a surprisingly convincing Irish accent) are all terrific – particularly Swinton, whose Mason is a grotesquely comic creation and in many ways the only source of levity in the film. However, this picture belongs entirely to Chris Evans. Considering his recent show of disillusionment with the acting profession, it’s heartening to see him in a role such as this one, which reveals a whole other side to his ability and one that rarely has an opportunity to shine. Curtis is a physical and imposing character but one who struggles with a painful and daunting emotional dilemma and it is in conveying this torn, guilt-ridden reluctant leader that Evans really excels. Song Kang-Ho and Go Ah-Sung are also exemplary  as train security expert Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona. These are two intriguing characters, with an agenda all their own, and their initial disgust at being freed from jail by tail sectioners says more about the prejudice engendered by the train’s grim society than anything else.

It’s in little details like this that Snowpiercer reveals its smarts and brilliance, providing inklings of thought that will keep viewers fixated for days. Massive, ridiculous, captivating, hilarious, visceral and heartbreaking, this is as damn near close to a complete cinematic experience as you’re ever likely to have.


Review written by Grace Duffy

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