Thursday, 5 March 2015


Snowpiercer is a science fiction action film by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho based on a french comic book written by Jacques Lob and after Lob's death Benjamin Legrand, and drawn by Jean-Marc Rochette.

A failed attempt to combat global warming by injecting a coolant into the atmosphere backfires catastrophically and instead creates a new ice age, which kills most of life on Earth. The only remaining human survivors live on a train built and run by the industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris) that circles the world. The train is a brutal class society in which the third class passengers live in utter poverty in the back of the train while the first class live in luxury in the front. The film chronicles a revolution of the train's underclass, "the tail-enders" against the prevailing order, which is led by Curtis (Chris Evans). He plans to lead the revolt all the way through the train to reach and take over the engine. To help him, he enlists the security specialist Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-Ho) who has constructed the doors of the train, but due to a drug addiction fallen out of favour with Wilford.

As you might tell, this is a highly political film. In it's uncompromising and brilliant criticism of capitalism, it's perhaps the most daring and intelligent film to reach the general public in decades.  Bong Joon-Ho is a former student activist (the link contains spoilers by the way) currently affiliated with the socialist New Progressive Party in South Korea. His depiction of a class society of the train is unflinching and brutal, but well supported by history. Worse things have happened. Writer Jacques Lob's allegory of the train for capitalism, is utterly brilliant just as an idea, and the execution by the director is superb.

The science of the train (and the film in general) makes as much sense as Godzilla, but objecting to such a powerful allegory on the grounds of scientific or even logical sense is like objecting to H. G. Wells time machine on the same grounds. It would be missing the point, which isn't to create a plausible gadget, like the science fiction of Jules Verne or Robert L. Forward but to create an allegory which speaks to us on an emotional and artistic level.

And while Joon-Ho is definitely on the side of the revolutionaries, he also makes the clear the necessity for a revolution to not further the logic of the system it seeks to replace, but to break it. Otherwise, he argues, the revolution will be corrupted.

Another important theme of the film is sacrifice. Joon-Ho makes a distinction between people who perform self sacrifice and those (like the capitalist overclass that owns and runs the train) who force others to sacrifice for them. And when Joon-Ho says sacrifice, he means it: the recurring symbol of such sacrifice is people losing one of their arms.

The storytelling is riveting, just when you think things can't get any worse, the film throws another gut-wrenching twist at you, all the way up to the cathartic ending. The action is incredibly suspenseful.  While the film is very dark, dirty and filled with brutal violence, it's never really realistic, and there is an element of absurd and satirical humour. A tense fight can be put on hold for an impromptu New Years celebration.  At one point, actress Allison Pill takes over the film to deliver an absolutely hilarious performance as a teacher, in a utterly scathing, but funny satire on education.

 This tone is also set by the beautiful cinematography. While much of the film is set in a small, cramped and dirty environment, there are several memorable and beautiful images. When a upper-class woman visits the tail section, the class distinction is highlighted by her vivid yellow dress. When a gunfight breaks a window, the camera takes time away from the action to focus on a single snowflake floating past a character's face. The ending is veritable orgy of strong images.

The acting is brilliant, and there are no weak links, with Chris Evans and Song Kang-Ho giving very strong lead performances. Go Ah-Sung is very convincing in the surprisingly crucial role as the latter's daughter.  John Hurt is his wonderful self. Ed Harris gives a convincing performance as the film's villian. Tilda Swinton, so into her role that she's totally unrecognisable, gives a funny and mesmerising performance as the grotesque and loathsome villain Minister Mason, who reminds one of Margaret Thatcher.

This is overall one of the best and most intelligent science fiction films made in the past decade. While it probably has already left the theatres (Sweden often receives non-mainstream films like this a little late), you should definitely see it at the earliest possible opportunity.

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