Unapologetic and Self-Assured: a Review of Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer

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** Paragraphs marked with ** contain spoilers

Film: Snowpiercer
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Primary Cast: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ah-sung Ko, Ed Harris
U.S. Release Date: 27 June 2014

Last weekend, I finally got my butt to the theater and saw Snowpiercer. I’d heard the occasional whisper about the film and remembered seeing the character posters on Tumblr months ago, but—besides the drama between Joon-ho Bong and the Weinsteins—I knew almost nothing about the film. I never saw a trailer for the film, I knew nothing about the plot except that it involved a train and cold weather. Still, I often find that I enjoy a film much more thoroughly if I go in without any well-defined expectations; I think this certainly proved true with Snowpiercer. With each new scene, with each step closer to the engine, I was pleasantly surprised, again and again. Any given summer could easily pass without me seeing any films (in the theaters anyway) that stick with me and that I genuinely and thoroughly enjoy; thanks to Snowpiercer, this summer won’t be one of those. Woo.

What follows is my first attempt at a properish film review, k cool?

Watch Snowpiercer Now

As many have already observed, Snowpiercer is a film that respects its audience. This ‘respect’ comes through most clearly in the film’s consistent assumption of a certain intelligence on the part of its viewers. This unapologetic and self-assured film offers pure entertainment coupled with profound reflections on humanity, the environment, and the dangers of capitalist society. Fun, visceral, and thought-provoking, Snowpiercer isn’t perfect, but it is a worthwhile way to spend two hours.

Adapted from the 1982 French Graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer is set in 2031, 17 years after a worldwide attempt to reverse global warming results in an ice age so severe that it (apparently) renders life on earth virtually impossible. The only humans left alive are those who boarded The Train (which makes one complete journey around the planet each year). The Train is basically divided according to a class system, where those who had money back when they boarded the train live comfortably while those without live in squalor and are consistently abused by those in power. The closer to the front of the train one lives, the more power they have and the better their living conditions; the Train’s division into cars makes it all too easy for those who control the train to keep everyone segregated by class and to treat those in separate cars differently (those at the back of the train know they have it worse than those at the front but really have no idea just how much worse until a few of them actually see the front of the train for themselves). After years of living like rats, some of those at the back of train plan to revolt and take over the Train’s (rather mythical) engine. Reluctant-leader Curtis (Chris Evans) and his devoted follower Edgar (Jaime Bell) are the main organizers of the revolt (though they often seek advice from the wizened and sagacious Gilliam (played by John Hurt). Once they get over the hurtle of freeing security expert Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yuna (Ah-sung Ko) from the prison section of the train, the revolt really takes off (for much of its middle section, Snowpiercer is pure action-thriller).

The film features performances from a solid and diverse cast which (in addition to those already mentioned) includes Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Alison Pill, and Ewen Bremner.

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Snowpiercer isn’t concerned with explaining itself, nor does it make it immediately clear what it’s about or where it’s going. In fact (if my memory serves me correctly), the first scene or two on the train give viewers very little in the way of explicitly stated facts about life on the train or about who main characters like Curtis, Edgar, and Gilliam really are. Instead, the film trusts that’s its viewers are paying attention and gradually shows them all they need to know. Snowpiercer takes its time; for some, the opening section may even be a bit slow, but it’s worth it. Like a train gathering momentum, Snowpiercer moves rather quickly and is hard to stop once it gets going; for most of the film, things move at rather energetic pace (the effect of which may in fact be increased by the somewhat creeping beginning). The slow beginning also gives viewers time to slip into the world of the film; for quite some time, we are as confined to the back of the car just as Curtis & c are. Once the revolt beings—taking the film and its viewers relentless forward toward the engine—there is no looking or going back, which may also help justify the slow beginning.

As the back-of-the-train revolters gradually make their way toward the front of the train (dwindling in number as they go) things get weirder and weirder until they border on surreal. Perhaps the best example of this is the bizarrely disturbing school room scene. I don’t want to spoil things, but, for me, the raw sense of unease I felt during that scene was itself worth the price of admission.

Another bizarre moment occurs when the over-the-top and Thatcher-like Mason removes her prosthetic upper teeth. The resulting image is absolutely absurd and (to my mind) rather hilarious, but it is also deeply unsettling. The image says something quite poignant about figures in power: without their “teeth,” without their outer trappings of authority they are, beneath it all, ineffectual, pathetic, and downright ridiculous; but, like Wilford (to whom Mason is religiously devoted), such figures exercise their power all the same.

Snowpiercer is visually stylized in a way that allows for moments of beauty in an otherwise rather grim film. That said, some of the camerawork in the film may disorient viewers. This, however, is hardly a bad thing. Joon-ho Bong & crew make very creative use of the cramped train space and the disorientation/ visual confusion they occasionally create in that space may even be a way of giving a viewers a sense what it is like to exist like those in the Train. With its camerawork and story alike, Snowpiercer shows its viewers that you don’t need space to get lost.

As for performances, there really isn’t much to complain about. Hurt’s portrayal of Gilliam is exactly what you’d expect from Hurt (in that it’s more about his voice than anything), but it works for the story. Evans impressed me more than I expected (I’ve only seen him in Scott Pilgrim and the Avengers and I didn’t care at all for the latter). His performance may be on the quiet side, but it is also complex and emotionally affecting. He does his best work near the film’s end, giving audiences a devastated, exhausted, and empty stare that they won’t soon forget. Many have already commented on Swinton’s portrayal of Mason. Surely, her performance is the one many viewers will remember most, largely for its sheer absurdity. Though her part is short, Alison Pill is also remarkably memorable as the creepy-yet-cheery pregnant school teacher. Namgoong Minsoo and Ah-sung Ko are great, and though I haven’t mentioned him yet, Vlad Ivanov is hella creepy as Franco the Elder. I was not particularly thrilled with Ed Harris (his portrayal of the Oz-like demigod Wilford felt like a slightly-sleepier version of Christof from The Truman Show).

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Perhap’s part of the film’s socially-relevant real-world “message” is simply this: Even though we seem to be heading toward environmental disaster and worsened social inequality on a high-speed train, that train (despite all that suggests otherwise) can be stopped. But it won’t be easy, and there will likely be a great deal of pain and sacrifice along the way.

(Spoilers Below)
**Personally, I would have preferred for the film to end with the cut to black just after the crash. To my sensibility, that ending would have been more powerful, more haunting. Of course, it would have also been bleaker (which is not to say that the film ends on a particularly cheery note) . . . so it’s possible that my desire for such an ending says more about me than it does the strengths and weaknesses of Joon-ho Bong’s work.

** With its beauty and horror, its intense fight scenes and philosophical musings, Snowpiercer is a film fueled by juxtaposition. Like the train itself—with its disparate cars and sickeningly unequal ways of life—Snowpiercer wouldn’t function without inequality and opposition. This is not to say, however, that the film is somehow advocating for the model of human society that the train presents. After all, while they may seem unstoppable at times, both the Train and Snowpiercer do come to an end (that the film’s end more-or-less coincides with the end of the Train emphasizes the ways in which the two are structurally similar). Like Curtis in the engine, viewers of this film may be left feeling a bit off-balance, a bit uncertain about exactly what it is that they have just experienced, but that’s part of what makes this film a success. Curtis doesn’t gain control of the train; we don’t get to feel like we have control of the film either. At times deeply depressing and, at others campy and even funny, Snowpiercer is a strangely wild ride from start to finish.

Ultimately, Snowpiercer occupies a rather interesting space somewhere between self-indulgent action film and more markedly intellectual arthouse fare, and it does it well. With its violence, its bleakness, and its visual stylization, Snowpiercer may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is most definitely a summer movie that deserves to be seen.

That’s It For Now
Thank you so much for reading. There is a lot more I’d like to talk about in this film—including its use of cannibalism, dismemberment, and religious shiz— but, until I have it on DVD and can easily rewatch it,  I’m not comfortable making a more analytic post. That said, expect to see me write something on Snowpiercer again eventually.

What did you think of Snowpiercer? Feel free to leave a comment below, and let me know. 

6 thoughts on “Unapologetic and Self-Assured: a Review of Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer

  1. Dorothy and I agree about the ending. We both were reading this together and pointed at the screen and shouted “YES”

    We also want to know your thoughts on the religiousy stuff/everything you mentioned in the end of this post. Now.

    • Kaiiii. I also may have said something out loud when it cut to black, prompting my sister to shhhsssssshhhh me. I so badly wanted that to be the end.
      I’ll definitely try to revisit Snowpiercer with some more thoughtful posts once I get my hands on the DVD. Don’t worry.
      I may try to talk about the different types of ‘faith’ exhibited by Mason (in Wilford) and by Curtis (in Gillliam). So if you have any thoughts on that, feel free to share.

      • I didn’t get a notification for this reply, so this is the first time I’m seeing it. Sorry!!

        I don’t have much to say at the moment (I need to rewatch the film for that), but I do remember that Mason talking about Wilford reminded me a lot of the kind of deification of Ford in Brave New World. Probably has to do with the whole train-car, industrial similarity and not really anything much deeper.

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