Snowpiercer: A Chilling Tale

This Korean sci-fi film from Bong Joon-ho is a socio-political thriller in disguise, and The Hunger Games doesn’t hold a candle to it.

Released in Korea last Summer, Snowpiercer is an action-filled adventure so tense it keeps you perched on the edge of the seat. It chronicles a class war that takes place on a train doomed to circle perpetually round the world, which has been turned into an icy wasteland after an attempt to stop global warming went badly wrong. This train holds the last survivors of humanity, and is so large that it holds an entire class system on board. Poor and disabled folk at the back, rich folk at the front. It’s sort of like taking the whole first-class-carriage system you see in the UK today to the nth degree. And, as a film, it really works.

The train and the icy world image © Moho Films 2013
The train and the icy world
image © Moho Films 2013

The audience is put firmly in the camp of the poor folk; we see things through their eyes, we experience the awful things that happen to them by proxy, and very quickly we start rooting for them.

Residents of the last carriage image © Telegraph
Residents of the last carriage
image © Telegraph

There’s that old adage that ‘everybody likes an underdog’, but with Snowpiercer the abuse these people go through is so violent that you really have no choice. Some social commentary films try to achieve their aims by insinuation and gradual introduction to injustices, but Snowpiercer does it with blunt force and no mercy. Within the first ten minutes I found myself biting my nails and praying that they would get their chance for escape.

There’s a major problem with wishing for escape, however. Being stuck on a train with Antarctica-level cold outside means there really is nowhere to escape to, so the only option is uprising. The bulk of Snowpiercer follows the uprising led by central character and rear-carriage dweller Curtis, who begins his protest fight after two children are taken from his friends for sinister and hitherto-unknown purposes (I’m not going to spoil anything here, you’ll just have to watch it).

Minister Mason image © rogerebert.com
Minister Mason
image © rogerebert.com

It sounds relatively simple – work your way through the carriages and get your revenge – but it’s really a lot more complex than that.There are other forces at play; people with agendas and various levels of political influence, reasons and ambitions and plot twists and revelations, all of which combine in a glorious headrush that will leave you spinning in the aftermath. I rarely watch the credits all the way to the end, but with Snowpiercer that time was necessary to process what had just happened.

The cast is absolutely stellar, a mix of well-known actors (John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and ‘Captain America’ aka Chris Evans), and actors lesser-known to a Western audience (Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung). Their acting is done with feeling, expression and intense emotion. The mix of language and ethnicity lends the film a very ‘real’ feeling, and the occasional glimpses of the snow-bound world outside the train lend an apocalyptic overtone to the gritty, enclosed, metallic environment of its interior.The whole thing feels hopeless, yet threads of hope are still clung to.

Cover for Le Transperceneige image © Casterman Editions
Cover for Le Transperceneige
image © Casterman Editions

The film is based on a 1980’s French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige (which fetches a pretty price in the French book markets these days, but don’t worry, there’s now an English translation too)Bong Joon-ho came across the novel in a bookshop and read the whole thing while standing at the shelf. This birthed his desire to turn it into a film, something which has ended up with extremely positive critical reviews, and is currently the tenth highest grossing film ever in South Korea.

It’s well worth a watch, and for such a high-concept idea, it really says a lot that can be applied to reality. Population control and allocation of precious resources is a real problem that all-too-often devolves into a class issue, even in our own country. There’s a sort of Malthusian cruelty involved in these situations that we don’t even notice ourselves fall into, and sci-fi films like Snowpiercer, with their outrageous and extreme premises, allow us a window into another perspective, or other possibilities But ultimately, this film is a fantastic apocalyptic action thriller, and is enjoyable in that slightly horrific way. Give it a go, but maybe bring a stiff drink with you.

Currently, Snowpiercer is available in South Korea and France, so if you speak either of those two languages you can obtain a DVD online and get watching. Otherwise, the official US release date is set for June 27th, and the UK release should be not long after that, so check back when we have more news on that!

In the meantime, enjoy the official trailer:


main image © Moho Films 2013


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