Korea (2013) Dir. Bong Joon-ho
In 2014 an experiment to counter global warming goes horribly awry, creating an ice age which wipes out the majority of the human race. The survivors were placed on environmentally durable train called the Snowpiercer designed and built by a rich scientist and train lover named Wilford (Ed Harris), powered by a perpetual-motion engine that circles the entire globe over the course of one year.
In paralleling society the train is made up of class system with the rich and privileged living in absurd luxury at the Front End while the poor and sick live under impoverished and oppressive conditions at the Tail End. In 2031, seventeen years into the train’s journey, the Tail End passengers begin their final rebellion, having gathered intel and observed the habits and movements of the train’s guards.
Korean director Bong Joon-ho has made a name for himself with top notch crime dramas such as Memories Of Murder and Mother and the literal monster hit The Host. This adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette is Bong’s first English language film (well about 90% of it is) and was the subject of much speculation in the media when US distributor Harvey Weinstein wanted to shorten.
Claiming US audiences wouldn’t understand the plot and that its 125 minute run time (originally mooted to be 150 minutes) was too long, Weinstein demanded to cut 20 minutes from it, employing a voice over recap instead. Thankfully Bong stood his ground and the film has been released outside of Korea intact. Hurrah!
The story isn’t that confusing at all, with salient bits of information being revealed gradually and not in a linear fashion which probably confused poor Harvey! It is an obvious metaphor of modern society and how even in times of tragedy and desperation how certain people still refuse to live alongside their fellow man, with the various carriages or sections of the train representing the various levels of comfort.
Rather scarily, for us in the UK, it feels like it is telling our story under the current Tory government, manifested in the form of the smarmy but ludicrously deluded overseer Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), who constantly tells the Tail Enders how worthless they are yet expects them to be appreciative of the appalling treatment they receive as it is their place on the train while the Front Enders live it up!
Leading the rebellion on the brawn front is Curtis (an almost unrecognisable Chris Evans), gobby Irishman Edgar (Jamie Bell) and feisty mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer) –whose young son Timmy has been taken to the front for reason unknown – with the brains supplied by the wizened Gilliam (John Hurt). The Tail Enders are fed with black protein blocks, some of which contain small metal tubes with messages inside them that help the rebels plan their attack.
Their first task is to free Korean drug addict Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) who built all the doors or the train. When awakened they bribe Minsu with the drug Kronal and he awakens his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung, the young girl from The Host), who appears to possess clairvoyant powers, to enlist her aid. The uprising moves forward and while Mason and her violent soldiers seem to be one step ahead the Tail Enders are a more unified and resourceful group than they appear.
Violent clashes are the order of the day and Bong hasn’t tamed his Korean bloodlust for this internationally friendly release which should appease old fans. No-one escapes unharmed, especially Wilford’s henchman Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov), a distant cousin of the Terminator as demonstrated by his impossible invincibility. The rebels lose numbers along the way which only strengthens their resolve and without spoiling anything, it is refreshing to see that it isn’t peripheral characters who go early.
One of the points rammed home via the younger characters, such as 17 year-old Yona who was born on the train thus hasn’t seen the outside world, which is currently covered in a thick layer of snow. Her wonderment as she passes through the train to see things food, books, light, etc. is – for this writer – a metaphor for the kids today who live with modern technology and have no clue about analogue life, as well as how lower classed people miss out the luxuries the upper classes take for granted.
While there is plenty of violence, oppression, brutality, discrimination and amusing but disturbing rhetoric from Mason arguably the most shocking scene is the most colourful, energetic, brightly lit and upbeat scene of the whole film. It is set during a class held for the Front End kids where they are being indoctrinated about the wonders of Mr. Wilford and the persecution of the Tail Enders by a scarily perky teacher named (Alison Pill), reminiscent of the cheery instructional video in Battle Royale.
With an international cast at his disposal, Bong has chosen well, while relying on stalwarts Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung to represent his homeland. Chris Evans is still the hero but nothing like Captain America; Jamie Bell is a bit annoying as Edgar while Octavia Spencer is at home as the big black mama. John Hurt provides the gravitas and Ed Harris is frighteningly calm as Wilford but the show is stolen by Tilda Swinton with her comic but acute essaying of Mason, adopting a strange Northern English accent which she delivers with a twisted confidence.
When Asian directors make the transition to English language films their successes have been hit and miss with Park Chan-Wook so far being the only one to hit the target with Stoker. With Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho challenges that title and possible steals it. Yes the plot has a few holes nit pickers will scream over but this is an intense, incisive, cutting and above all entertaining thrill ride. Enjoy!