Review: SNOWPIERCER Fires On All Cylinders

Cinema is a medium of motion and if anyone understands this, it appears to be Bong Joon-ho, whose visionary new work is a demented and stunning thrillride. In his first production outside his native South Korea, Bong has delivered his most ambitious project yet, and proves more than capable of handling an international, multilingual cast and a large budget.

When a global warming solution backfires, the Earth is enveloped in a new Ice Age which almost annihilates the human race. The few thousand survivors live aboard a lone train that perpetually circumnavigates the otherwise dead planet. The train's creator, Wilford, leads from the engine at the front, while the tail is inhabited by low class citizens. Each day they are subjected to humiliating atrocities, and at their wits' end, a revolt finally erupts.

In a narrative almost completely bereft of melodrama, Bong is never afraid to put his characters through hell or kill them off in an instant. The stakes are high, the space confined and the time limited. On the train, there is no room for mistakes. Reason trounces emotion at every turn, keeping the film hurtling along at breakneck speed. In Snowpiercer, movement equals life and everything, down to thin slivers of light and a snowflake floating by a window, is in constant motion. Shadowy backgrounds flit by during the opening credits before we are introduced to a train that hasn't stopped moving in 17 years. The entire setting of the film is always belting forward, and once the revolt begins, the protagonists push ahead within it. If the revolt slows down, it will fail and if the train stops, its inhabitants will freeze: Stopping for even a moment is certain death.

As expected, spatial dynamics play a huge role in Snowpiercer, which would all be for naught were it not for the film's stunning and endlessly inventive mise-en-scene. Filming an ambitious sci-fi in confined spaces is no small feat and director of photography Hong Kyung-pyo has done a magnificent job of bringing each of the train's carriages to life with rich and eclectic cinematography. Combined with Ondrej Nekvasil's excellent production design, Steve M. Choe's layered editing and Marco Betrami's evocative and multifaceted score, the film's technical specs are a feast for the senses.

Bong has assembled an eclectic cast and each of his actors is well matched to their characters, yet many go beyond the traditional confines of their roles, delighting and horrifying us in surprising ways. Chris Evans, in between Captain America roles, plays the reluctant working class hero to a tee, and shines in the film's back half, when the script gifts him some unexpectedly weighty moments.

Under her false teeth, wig and pasty makeup, Tilda Swinton is uproarious as the train's unhinged prime minister. Measured and full of delightful ticks, her memorable Yorkshire madam steals every scene she's in. John Hurt's performance as the elderly patriarch of the tail section is marked by raspy gravitas and a mournful gaze. Bong stalwart Song Kang-ho effortlessly keeps up with his English-speaking co-stars, strutting and shuffling about, providing comic relief and a dash of cool as the train's incarcerated former chief of security.

Though it was never going to be a sunny ride, the sheer desperation, violence and madness on display throughout Snowpiercer's 125 minutes make it one of the most dystopian films we've seen in quite some time. As we proceed forward through the train's carriages, from the grimy tail, through the cartoonish school, idyllic green house and debauched clubs, so too the film's tone, story and characters evolve and enrichen.

Following the disappointment of Kim Jee-woon's The Last Stand and the lukewarm reception of Park Chan-wook's meticulous chamber piece Stoker, Bong Joon-ho has created with Snowpiercer the most accomplished overseas work of any Korean filmmaker to-date. While it remains to be seen whether or not mainstream western audiences will embrace Bong's dark and ferocious genre film, in many ways he's already beaten Hollywood at its own game. A tour de force of science fiction, Snowpiercer is a singular and breathtaking cinematic experience.

Around the Internet:
  • Alejandro

    The reason it wasn't released is because it's a horrible piece of garbage.

  • aeric_7734

    I think there's a huge amount of people that would be stoked if the Weinsteins got off their collective backsides and came up with a US release date for this. Unless they just intend to sit on it for two years before dumping it into DVD like was done by Fox with Yellow Sea (which deserved far better treatment than it got in the US). I'm not opposed to importing from other regions, especially considering the quality imbued on most blu-rays out of South Korea (thank you CJ Entertainment), but that may be beyond most peoples' means. Plus, even given the best treatment on disc, it's no substitute for seeing something this apparently epic on the big screen.

  • odd eye

    Snowpiercer, 2013 - Final International Trailer
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

  • odd eye
  • odd eye
  • ^^

    Wow, I can't wait to see this! I wish they would hurry up and finalize the worldwide release dates already.

  • marshy00

    Saw this with Pierce yesterday and loved the film too. Was far darker and bleaker than expected, yet far more inventive too. Bong really steps up and delivers a genre film, but one that really pushes the limits of what that can be and defies our expectations. Chris Evans made an incredibly bold decision taking this role - this is FAR removed from Captain America - but he does great work. Tilda Swinton steals the show however, while Song Kang-ho also does well, even though his role is definitely secondary. Suffice to say the film is thrilling, darkly humorous and ultimately quite moving, but may well prove too dark to be the crossover mainstream success in the West that some were hoping it would be. Hope I'm wrong about that though, and urge everyone to check it out when they get the chance.

  • Simon de Bruyn

    Is it easy to understand Swinny's accent? It was fairly hard in the trailers.

  • marshy00

    Yes, much clearer than in the trailer, but it is still a thick Yorkshire accent. I don't forsee anyone having a problem with it though.

  • curious

    Would you call it entertaining?

  • marshy00

    Yes

  • Jugmarker

    How much of the film is in Korean? Hopefully, I'm going to see it August 1st when it comes out in Korea, but I'm worried about it not having English subtitles for the Korean dialogue.

  • Pierce Conran

    The cut I saw, which is the one that will play in Korea in August, had either a translation device within the film for the benefit of the English-speaking characters or the Korean dialogue was subtitled, so there's nothing to worry about. In any case I think about 90% was in English.

  • Simon de Bruyn

    I love the photo of Master Blaster up the top there

  • muckerman

    I wouldn't call The Last Stand a disappointment. I thought it was a lot of fun and wasn't really expecting much from an Arnold film. I liked Stoker quite a lot as well.

    Can't wait for this!

  • Juan Andrés Valencia

    I would never say The Last Stand was amazing but it was definetely fun, bloody and extremely stupid. Which was what I expected.

  • muckerman

    Exactly.

  • Pierce Conran

    Agree with you on The Last Stand. My comment had more to do with the fact that Kim Jee-woon wasn't given a chance to leave his mark, not to mention it was quite a flop.

  • Juan Andrés Valencia

    I think it's been selling well in DVD and Blu-Ray. And that's without counting rentals so it's not an entirely bad thing.

    Sometimes films flop just to find a new home in... home video. Look at Dredd 3D, a major flop in the box office that managed to sell over 600k copies in the first week, and that's without counting films like Showgirls which became huge hits after they flopped.

  • Jared

    I need to see this... Is the film comparable to any of his previous works?

  • Pierce Conran

    Yes and no. His films all bare his mark but as this one is not set in Korea, it feels quite a bit different, though the presence of Song Kang-ho adds some familiarity.

  • Ard Vijn

    Dammit Pierce! JEALOUS!

    What is it with Twitch the last three days? THE WIND RISES, THE WORLD'S END and now this? I want a big pile of awesome coming to The Netherlands right now!

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