My nerd cred evolves as I depart from my usual stomping grounds in Japanese media to explore South Korea’s outlet!
Snowpiercer is the kind of movie cinemaphiles like myself like to watch before congratulating ourselves, breaking our arms patting ourselves on the back. It’s the kind of movie you watch and immediately think “Wow, I am so much better than everyone else for having seen this.” It’s obscure and foreign and, yes, it also happens to be good.
It’s based on the French graphical novel (fancy word for comic) “Le Transperceneige” so it also has that going for it. We love anything that’s even remotely related to something French, even porn. Add to that that it was made in South Korea and you have the equivalent of cocaine to a film critic. In the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was good or not, we’d be raving about it anyway.
In the near future, attempts to stop global warming result in a much greater catastrophe when it instead results in the global temperature dropping drastically across the board, causing a new ice age. The last remaining humans are gathered on a train that travels the world on a looping track. But while the people in the front live a life of luxury, the people in the back live anything but. Stacked on top of each other and under the mercy of the elite, they eke out a living just barely. But now they’ve had enough and the revolt is about to begin. Under the leadership of Curtis Everett and helped by the mysterious clues hidden in their daily rations, they begin to push forward, one car at a time.
Just in case you missed it from that little synopsis, this move is all about the class wars, man, the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots. Or is it? Well, the jury is still out on that but while that is the most obvious thing to take away from this, given how clearly they portray the differences between the tail and the head (it’s a movie thing… you’ll understand when you watch it), there are also another message hidden underneath: that it doesn’t matter whether we’re rich or poor, in general we’re pretty shitty people either way.
Despite being a Korean production, it sports a primarily English cast with Chris Evans as the centerfold star. Backing him up is John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Korean star Song Kang-ho. It’s not the biggest A-listers out there but it’s definitely a powerhouse of actors putting their best foot forward. Tilda Swinton turns in a monster of a performance as the elitist Mason. If nothing else in the movie, her Mason is an absolutely terrifying and breathtaking character that you both love and hate that is worth watching.
Rounding out the case is Ed Harris, Go Ah-sung, Octavia Spencer, Ewan Bremner, Alison Pill and the impressive Luke Pasqualino who is a new talent for me but has made me want to watch “The Musketeers”. They may only be supporting cast but they’re a memorable bunch that all turn in ridiculously strong performance no matter how brief some of their parts are.
Each character is very well written with depths and layers to them, especially the ones who have a leading role such as Curtis and Mason though Song Kang-ho’s Namgoong leaves a little to be desired, his deadpan acting a bit too powerful for the character’s intentions.
So the director managed to pull great performances from relative nobodies (with exceptions) but what about the directing itself… well, it’s really good. I’ve only ever seen one of his previous movies, The Host, and I can’t really say I was as thoroughly impressed with it then as I am with Snowpiercer now. But one should not always rely on ones memory, I wrote off Kairo when I first watched it and today it’s one of my favorite movies of all times. Things change or perhaps you weren’t in the best of moods when you saw it.
Either way, Snowpiercer is an expertly shot and directed movie that manages to catch the correct mood in every scene. While it starts off hauntingly enough as it is, once it really gets going the mood manages to intensify and a sense of surrealism starts to permeate the movie. One can truly feel a threatening presence in the atmosphere and the further along the train they get, the stronger the feeling of woe.
Reaching the engine sets off one of the most haunting performances in cinema, I truly had goosebumps at that point.
It’s not just the setting that’s bleak either, the lighting and cinematography depicts the feeling of despair the people in the back of the train feel expertly which slowly gives way to a more contrasting way when they get further ahead in the train where there’s color and even live animals yet somehow one still doesn’t feel hopeful. It’s a scarring way of looking at something that is already reality in some parts of the world.
The world outside the train that we get the pleasure of viewing every now and then is as captivating as anything, huge relics of our past frozen in a never ending landscape. Year after year they travel the globe, marking specific stretches with holiday and cheer and despite the fact that the train has only been running for 17 years, it’s already all that they know. It’s strange to me how South Korea can manage such a high quality of special effects but they really can squeeze their budgets for all their worth. Despite “only” having a budget of $40 million the movie looks like any grand, AAA movie from Hollywood with a budget four times that.
That’s not to say the movie is without its problems. At the end of the day, there’s a severe restriction on what they can do with the sets. And many viewers will definitely balk at the impracticality and ridiculousness of the train in the first place which will only become that much more in your face the closer they get to the engine itself. And the movie never feels like it has to explain itself either, more than once those I watched it with asked questions that seemed logical enough but that the movie never really answered.
And unless you can let go of these questions and accept the meta narrative for what it is, an examination of human nature and our society, and enjoy the dark atmosphere then chances are you won’t like this movie. While it does sell itself as an action/sci-fi romp, I’d be more inclined to call it a drama or psychological thriller.
The movie plays expertly with our expectations throughout and despite an action scene here and there, overall it’s a slow and plodding narrative that isn’t ashamed to take its time and it’s better for it. Characters are evolved and no-one is quite as simple as they first appear. There’s great darkness hidden in Evans’ Curtis and Swinton’s Mason becomes one of the most interesting characters the closer they get to the engine with her character peaking in the school, at which point you understand just how sick the front of the train truly is.
To say that there’s one or two jabs at religion is putting it mildly.
I’m a big fan of Korean movies in general, having seen my fair share of them and always on the lookout for more and this movie is one that confirms my conviction. Yes, your average Marvel movies like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is great for the moment but it’s movies like this that stick with you and drives home the point of just how powerful movies can be.
Snowpiercer, like I said earlier, is the kind of movie we critics love to hold over the dirty masses because for once in our horrible careers we KNOW we know better. Snowpiercer IS a good movie and anyone who says differently is wrong. Not everyone will understand how great it is and while it is flawed, it’s a movie that is ultimately confident in the story it wants to tell and how to tell it and the actors are in on it, giving their absolute best to make the movie as good as it could be.
If you ever have the opportunity to see this movie then do so.
There aren’t enough words to explain everything that’s going on in this picture and how much it all matters. So just go see it. It’s a shame those of you reading this in America might not get the full experience as it was intended Bong Joon-ho but it is slated for a release very soon so hopefully you won’t have to bend over backwards to get it… even if it is edited.