Snowpiercer, 2013, South Korea/Czech Republic/USA/France
I think I’ve watched the best film of the year so far. Snowpiercer is a bleak dystopian social satire that takes place entirely on a train. The year is 2031. After a failed attempt to control global warming results in a profound global cooling, the world is now uninhabitable. The only survivors are residents on the train, which moves along the same rail track year after year. Each car is separated by class: the lowest of the low are in the tail; the richest are in the front. Curtis (Chris Evans) is a resident of the tail and he is planning a revolution with the help of his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt) and his second-in-command, Edgar (Jamie Bell). They need someone who can open the gates, so they storm the prison car, freeing Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Namgoong built the gates, and agrees to open them in exchange for kronol – a highly addictive and flammable drug produced out of industrial waste. The goal of the revolution is to take the engine: he who controls the engine controls the train.
Director Joon-ho Bong’s English-language debut is a highly stylistic and unusual film. The cinematography was astoundingly beautiful, both in and outside the train. The fight sequences take advantage of the tight space on the train, and are choreographed brilliantly. In fact, during one sequence, I was reminded of the iconic fight scene in another South Korean film – Oldboy. He plays with light and dark, but everything about the train feels desolate and sad – even the walk-through aquarium and pompous dinner parties.
Evans was excellent as Curtis, a character who is, at times, devastatingly human. One of the highlights of the film was Tilda Swinton as Mason, who might be the most irritating, detestable character put to screen this year. She was incredibly good (and kudos to the makeup folks who created her teeth!). In the hands of a lesser actress, Mason might have been mere comic relief, but she manages to keep her menacing.
The Weinstein Company purchased the North American distribution rights to Snowpiercer, but have since tried to bury the film. They had wanted to cut 20 minutes out of the film, citing a need to make the film easy for American audiences to understand, but the director refused, so it has been released in only a few American theatres and on Video on Demand. This is complete bullshit. It is a foreign film (though primarily in English), but it is in no way inaccessible to a Western audience. The Weinstein Company simply fears an intelligent, thought-provoking blockbuster rife with metaphor and allegory. It’s a bleak film that says some dark things about humanity, but that comes with the dystopian territory. However, the film has been getting astoundingly good reviews, and word of mouth has been ensuring that people watch it.
I intend to be that word of mouth. Watch Snowpiercer. It’s a brilliant film – truly one of the best of the year.