reviewed by Tom-Tom
Korean director Bong Joon-Ho is known in East Asia and among film aficionados for his great works “Memories of Murder” and “The Host”. His odd mix of graphic horror balanced with a rather unique off-beat humor makes for quite interesting if unconventional social commentary in his films. In “Snowpiercer,” his first English language movie, his style translates beautifully to the screen unlike certain of his contemporaries in Japan. Beat Takeshi’s “Brother” and the awkward remake of “Juon” by its original director Takashi Shimizu both fell flat although the beautiful films from Studio Ghibli continue to be universal in appeal. So what has Bong brought to the table of such directors as Ang Lee and Miyazaki Hayao that can interest a Western audience?
First off, he’s brought a talented international cast from Chris Evans, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton to Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and even Ed Harris. Next, he’s adapted a unique science fiction graphic novel by French artists Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette with his own vision and style. The off-beat humor is a generally successful mixed bag from outright weirdness to rather dark humor. Human society decided that global warming would destroy the world so they developed a cooling agent to normalize the skyrocketing temperatures only to destroy the world instead save it for the inhabitants of the “Ark,” a train that constantly moves around the world housing all that remains of the Earth. We only see the passengers in the rear section who are all dirty, dressed in wooly hats and coats. Armed guards come in to count everyone and demand random things from children to violinists and react with violence when they don’t get what they want. The passengers feed on “protein bars” whose actually composition is a mystery until a later horrifying revelation in the film. Tilda Swinton in a hilariously grotesque role as Mason, a sort of matronly dictator comes in to scold everyone in a patronizing and haughty Yorkshire accent explaining the established hierarchy of the people onboard the train. Her scorn of underlings as middle manager and simpering false bucktooth smile towards superiors is awkward and fist-clenchingly evil. Think Dolores Umbrage from the Harry Potter series but worse. Swinton has played a small minded and weak person in power in Michael Clayton but the ugliness is very much on the surface here. It is a mesmerizing and expert performance by a master.
Evans plays Curtis, a sort of unlikely leader of the rear passengers to whom all look for revolution. After 17 years of being at the bottom of the flag pole, all are ready for a change. We hear that there have been a few failed attempts to reach the engine at the opposite end of the train but none have hitherto succeeded. Mason’s speech (which takes place during the 7 minutes in which a condemned man is punished in a horrifying way I’ll leave you to anticipate. Punished but not killed, the human race is an endangered species after all) lets out a clue for all, that the guns with which the guards are armed are without bullets. Other clues come via the gelatinous protein bars advising the would-be revolutionaries on ways to take the train.
What follows is a thrilling, violent, and funny desperate assault away from the rear car. They are besieged along the way by tricks of the privileged economy and first class passengers and their guards. We learn much about the old and new world mostly from a pregnant school teacher played with hilarity by the great Alison Pill of “The Newsroom” fame. Only Helen Bonham Carter could have topped it.
With each room of increased privilege and luxury we grit our teeth and ball our hands into fists at the unfairness of the rear passengers’ plight. The plot moves excitingly forward but towards what we don’t know. There are bloody confrontations and heartrending scenes of loss. Evans as Curtis plums deeper than in any role he’s played so far. He’s up to the challenge as unlikely hero, Ulysses, leader, at one time inhuman survivor, and determined revolutionary. With all of these wonderful performances, I and others are certainly looking towards what Bong Joon-Ho will bring us next. Snowpiercer is a unique and fantastic film to the very end and one of the best pictures of 2013.