NZIFF – Snowpiercer
Korean Auteur Bong Joon-ho’s first foray into English language cinema has resulted in an engaging genre mash with a few crooked edges and a surprisingly gritty turn from Chris ‘Captain America’ Evans. If a few story elements appear to suffer in translation then Bong’s trademark turn-on-a-dime tonal switches remain intact, giving Snowpiercer a charged quality it may not otherwise have possessed.
A post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre film Snowpiercer imagines a near future where responses to extreme climate change have resulted in kind of sudden onset ice-age. The remnant of humanity who have not perished are all aboard the massive titular train—named for a design allowing it to pierce through massive snow banks and ice walls—which has been circumnavigating the globe once per year for the last seventeen years. In such a restricted, close-quartered environment the extreme divide between the wealthy and powerful and the poor and disenfranchised is severely exacerbated. Passage on the train is organised according to extreme socio-economic stratification with the ‘haves’ in the front nearest the ‘sacred engine’ filtering down the line to essentially refugee status in the tail section. We join the film at the beginning of what turns out to be the latest in a string of revolutions to try and break down the barriers between poor and rich. This time round the tail section activists are being led by conflicted hero Curtis Everett (Evans) and his mentor Gilliam (a light weight role for the venerable John Hurt). On their way forward they collect imprisoned lock-system technician Namgoong Minsu (Bong regular Song Kang-ho) and his ‘train-born’ daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung from The Host) to help clear their path. Needless to say things don’t go smoothly and two hours of tense drama, twisted humour, plus alternately thrilling and silly action sequences ensue.
Based from French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (first published in 1982) the film retains the narrative sensibility of source medium being clearly cut into digestible visual segments. These narrative sections are clearly demarcated by the physical extent of each train car as our central band journey from the tail of the train to the engine room at the very front. This division of the narrative by physical boundaries works in a similar way to the movement of story in Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 sci-fi head-spinner Cube as the captives traversed from room to near identical room. Here Bong adjusts the visual tone as they travel from impoverished to more and more wealthy sections. Poorly lit, grungy, unadorned train cars slowly morph into recognisably recent looking first class long-haul train cars into over-bright, stylised depictions of futurist excess. Subtle, the design is not but it has a flair and gradation which suits the film’s journey nicely. Bong and co—presumably driven by the source material—go big on the thematic issues of social inequality and power distribution but the tonal twisting stops Snowpiercer from bogging down in po-faced rhetoric. In particular a couple of delightfully perverse over-the-top characters inject some dark-edged levity. The ever reliably odd Tilda Swinton plays Mason, a mid-level administrator—in need of some serious dental work!—responsible for delivering important messages to the tail section from the train’s deified creator and engine attendant Wilford. And, anchoring one of the film’s standout segments, Alison Pill nails a surprisingly scene stealing role as a teacher in a school carriage they must pass through on their way forward.
The filmmakers wisely opt not to engage in any kind of broad plausibility measures; clearly the wider story context is so full of holes it doesn’t bear scrutiny—such as how on earth is the track maintained if all of humanity is encased in a constantly moving train they are not allowed to get off? The film’s logic exists only in the (literal and metaphorically) narrow reality of the train and if you can accept this you are more likely to enjoy Snowpiercer’s ambitiously creative ride, bumps and all.
Rating: R16 Violence.