Apocalypse Now: New Film 'Snowpiercer' Races Ahead of Genre

The world is reduced to a speeding train in South Korean director's first English-language offering.

Uri Klein
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Uri Klein

Snowpiercer Directed by Joon-ho Bong; written by Joon-ho Bong, Kelly Masterson; with Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ah-sung Ko, Kang-ho Song, Alison Pill

The first English-language film of South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, “Snowpiercer” is an apocalyptic, futuristic allegory with many ideological levels. Even if the movie, based on a French graphic novel, occasionally goes off the track, it is a riveting film that offers yet more proof of the director’s considerable talent. For a movie to be this gripping is an achievement in its own right, since we’ve seen so many apocalyptic fantasies already. Bong deserves kudos for managing to bring something new to this well-trod cinematic terrain.

In 2017, Planet Earth froze as the result of a failed attempt to slow down global warming. Its population was eradicated, except for a few hundred people who found refuge aboard a train, which hurtles through the frozen landscapes during the whole of the film and sometimes bursts through the ice on the tracks. The world has been reduced to a speeding train, and the movie likewise speeds ahead relentlessly. It is all about movement, both physically – the plot progresses from the back of the train through its many cars to the engine – and in the ideological sense, as the basis for revolution.

Trains in cinema have often appeared as allegories for film itself, and this is true of Bong’s movie as well. However, unlike other pictures set wholly or partly on trains, in this one we don’t see out through the windows, which resemble film frames as they pass by us. The windows in this case are covered, to conceal from the passengers the cold, dead world outside. It is only for brief moments that Bong’s camera moves out of the train to show it to us as it speeds through the frozen scenery; we also get to see what happened to seven passengers who left and tried to survive outside in the cold. This is done in a beautiful shot, which underscores the fact that “Snowpiercer” – a relentless action picture with enough blood and gore for more than one movie – also has a poetic side that deepens it and surprises us just as we least expect it.

The world has become a train hurtling nowhere; it circles the world over and over, because stopping means that the last survivors on earth will die; the train is the world. Owned by a corporation named after Wilford (Ed Harris), the tycoon who runs it from his solitary perch all the way up by the engine, it is divided by class. Hundreds of poor people are crammed together in the back, living off bars of protein that look like chocolate bars, but whose true, repulsive origins I won’t reveal here. The scenes set in the back cars, which are manned by black-clad soldiers, bring the Holocaust to mind, and I say this without hesitation because “Snowpiercer” as a whole is filled with allusions to genocide and other horrors that preceded the earth’s icy demise. The Holocaust connotations are especially strong in the scene showing how the children who are born on the train (the movie is set 17 years after the world froze and its refugees embarked on their endless journey) are torn from the arms of their mothers, who are left with nothing but a sketch of their children, which they use to try and find them.

There have been previous failed attempts at revolution aboard the train, and now a new initiative is forming in the back, where a group of would-be rebels plot to reach the engine and seize control of it. This is, of course, a movement with symbolic value, turning “Snowpiercer” into a political allegory of class warfare, whose primary target is the tycoon who runs the world. The reluctant leader of the uprising is Curtis (Chris Evans), who does not think he has what it takes to lead a revolution but joins the mission anyway, along with his young protégé, Edgar (Jamie Bell). He also relies on the guidance of Gilliam (John Hurt), his elderly mentor, and on the knowledge kept in the drugged-out brain of Namgoong (Kang-ho Song, one of South Korea’s biggest movie stars). The latter has a daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko), who is 17 (a number that recurs in the movie and has some kind of symbolic meaning that I have no way of figuring out) and never got to see the world before it froze.

On one level, “Snowpiercer” follows the birth of a leader, but where a standard Hollywood movie would have placed this process at the center in the best tradition of the American cult of masculinity, Bong does not make a big deal of it. Curtis takes the job – and he does it. There to suppress the uprising is Mason, Wilford’s frightening yet ridiculous representative, played by a grotesquely attired Tilda Swinton (currently also appearing on Israeli screens in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” in another role that has her almost completely disguised). Her eccentric appearance stresses the film’s oscillation between the real and the symbolic, and one of its main achievements is the tremendous skill with which this oscillation is handled.

On their way to the engine, while battling Wilford’s army, the rebels cross through the train’s many cars, each a kind of alternate universe that represents a rung on the movie’s social ladder. One car, filled with flowers, looks like a lounge in an exclusive club; another is a disco where upper-class youths have wild parties; there is even a car where the children of the elite study. Their young, blond teacher (Alison Pill) sports a constant smile, and her earnest, docile charges seem as though they emerged from a British prep school that churns out young zombies.

“Snowpiercer” is a smart, inventive picture, even if at times the plot becomes somewhat vague and hard to follow. Clearly, this is a unique and distinctive work that attests yet again to Joon-ho Bong’s gifts. He is not only one of South Korea’s premier filmmakers, but one of the most interesting directors working today. “Snowpiercer” may not be as fine as some of his previous pictures – the thriller “Memories of Murder,” the brilliant horror film “The Host,” or the excellent suspense melodrama “Mother.” Nevertheless, although less focused and concentrated than they were, it still casts a large shadow over most American-made futuristic action films, whose flaws it brings into glaring relief. At its best, South Korean cinema displays a creative freedom that subverts and beats the formulas of popular Hollywood filmmaking. That is true of “Snowpiercer,” a film that breathes new life into the action genre and whose last shot will stay with me for a long time to come.