July 9, 2014

Review: Bong Joon-ho Rides the 'Snowpiercer'

"The train is the world."
Bong Joon-ho Chris Evans Tilda Swinton Snowpiercer Movie

Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho's first English language film, Snowpiercer, is an ambitious, adequately grim, allegorical film about a dystopian future using a contained, singular environment to explore big ideas and themes surrounding our individual humanity with an international cast. Based on the French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, the film uses its high concept premise to delve into deep thematic issues and resolve humanity's primal survivalist instincts with cold rational thought.

Survival is anchored as the ultimate motive to explore the horrible capabilities and prime instincts of man. Chris Evans plays Curtis the reluctant hero and leader of workers from the tail section of a perpetually moving train inhabited by the last survivors of the human race. Predictably, the top class controls the train, living in lavish luxury at the front as the workers in the back suffer and revolt. Evans plays Curtis with a haunting dispassion and weariness. His journey grounds the ambitious narrative forward, saving it from drowning and falling into itself as Bong's greater mythology of this world is slowly revealed. It's an engaging performance working into the beloved ensemble cast.

The train is an obvious yet thoughtful and intelligently realized microcosm used to represent all aspects of humanity and behaviour with each car tailored to a certain part of life and social constuct. Social engineering is a strong recurring motif contrasted with the bleak, frozen environment outside the train and man trying to control himself and his surroundings. It's a distinct, fully-realized vision using drab, grim imagery to inform the performances and bring the concept to life.

Bong uses the compartmentalization of the train to weave cast members in and out of the story including an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, hardened Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho, John Hurt, and Octavia Spencer. The constant moving forward of the action and story as Evans and his followers slowly penetrate each level of the train (much like a video game) before reaching the final stage, the front of the train to meet its creator, Wilfred (Ed Harris), is inventive in its execution and a useful metaphor for the greater world outside that once existed.

Snowpiercer is framed as a rather blunt political allegory with bleak visuals and a sharp steampunk inspired aesthetic. Bong's sense of momentum and peril, building a post-apocolyptic world in a closed space, is fascinating. How he populated this universe and pieces together big performances with action set pieces in such confined spaces is very appealing. Despite his foreigner status, he constructs a very successful English language narrative while maintaining some very Korean  and international sensibilities. It's a fierce spectacle of substance and entertainment.

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