One of the more high profile and highly anticipated films of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival is Snowpiercer, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s foray into English-language filmmaking. And it may be one of the most successful examples of an East Asian director making the jump to Hollywood, following in the footsteps of Park Chan-wook (Stoker), Wong Kar-wai (My Blueberry Nights) and Kim Jee-woon (The Last Stand), to name but a recent few.
Based on the French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is set in a world where global warming has led to experiments that ultimately causes a worldwide ice age, killing off most of the human population. The last remaining survivors are aboard Snowpiercer, a train that is run by “the eternal engine,” perpetual power that keeps the train moving on a globe-spanning track all year round.
The train is divided into different segments, both in terms of function – water, food etc – and in terms of a class system set up by those still in power. This means that the rich and powerful live at the front of the train, enjoying great food and comfort, while the poor are forced to stay at the back in horrible cramped conditions and with only tar-like protein blocks to sustain themselves. 17 years on from the ice age, the tail passengers – led by Curtis (Chris Evans) – decide to start a revolt.
It’s an absolutely fascinating and infinitely intriguing premise with great potential to spin off into so many different areas. Bong, along with co-writer Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), skilfully manages to present this idea in a clear and concise fashion while never oversimplifying its central ideas about social inequality and the quest for not only human survival but dignity, nor does it tackle these things by beating you over the head with a message.
Similar to TV’s Battlestar Galactica, it’s a fascinating look at a society in microcosm, exploring how even in such an apocalyptic situation in which literally billions of people have been wiped out that there is still a tiered society that emerges where the rich and powerful beforehand remain so. Why? Because they have physical power – including guns and control over food, water and the locks and keys that seclude everyone – as well as psychological power over those deprived and in need. Even when the poor folk try to fight back, and met with brute force, there’s still an underlying feeling that this society functions for the sake of there being a society and order. As Mason, a head mistress-esque authoritative spokeswoman for the front of the train (played magnificently by Tilda Swinton), says; “I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. Keep your place.”
Bong’s film provides something for just about everyone, with things segmented both literally and the type of entertainment it provides. There’s as much deliberately paced character building and exploration of their individual motivations – given impact by impressive performances from the likes of Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Song Kang-ho (one of Bong’s regular collaborators), as there is stunning action, the latter made all the more impressive by the close-quarters nature of it all. One centrepiece sequence in which the revolting population face off against the small army of armed soldiers is particularly impressive, stylishly visceral as it recalls both the graphic novel upon which it’s based and Park Chan-wook’s hallway fight scene from Oldboy.
As the revolt begins and we start moving from the harsh tail section, we begin to see the various areas of the constricted world in which the remaining human population lives. Almost every segment brings a new flavour and atmosphere to the film as a whole, perpetually revealing new layers to the society, whether it be the creepily compliant (brainwashed?) schoolchildren in the classroom carriage or the surprising addition of an actual nightclub where the carefree rich can enjoy themselves while the poor try their best to survive just a dozen segments away.
Bong’s debut English-language feature is an impressive machine indeed, as well oiled intellectually as it is thoroughly entertaining and compelling. It’s a film that deftly explores the themes of everyday society but taken to the extreme and heightened in a restricted setting, punctuating its narrative with bouts of thrilling and expertly choreographed action alongside moments of welcome humour. Ironically, in spite of its seemingly disjointed plot where things are literally segmented, it adds up to more than the sum of its parts, making for a rich and audacious cinematic experience that fuses arthouse thinking with blockbuster heart. Overall it’s simply a killer concept brilliantly executed.