Snowpiercer opens in limited release today in Los Angeles and New York City. It expands to Chicago's Music Box Theater on July 4th.
Bong Joon-ho’s filmography is a potpourri of genre exercises, though there are particularly interesting trends that punctuate his work. Death and murder are often concepts that he deals with, whether it be the collateral damage of a monster running amok in The Host or the victims of a serial killer in Memories of Murder. Even Mother, his most subdued and internal effort, is fundamentally an exercise of concealing a murder. But these are superficial readings of his pictures, products of his lean but delicate narrative focus. Each of his films possess a rich anthropological understanding of a specific social milieu: the small suburban community afflicted by murder in Memories of Murder, a metropolis and a family contending with a monster beyond their understanding in The Host, and a mother’s attempt to conceal a murder from an increasingly suspicious town in Mother.
This emphasis on community is largely a result of Joon-ho’s sociological background, whereby his films acknowledge social impact in a very specific and precise way - he has a particular knack of condensing broad social concerns regarding privilege and economics within a tight knit community. His latest, Snowpiercer, is his first English-language film. Any language barrier is non-existent; despite featuring a train that courses through half the globe, housing people of many races and backgrounds, this remains just as a socially specific as any of Joon-ho’s previous films.
The Earth has been rendered uninhabitable following a miscalculated response to global warming. Survivors live on a train that course through much of Europe and Asia in a loop. Within this train is a blatant social construction: the front of the train houses the elite, with the tail end housing the marginalized. The train, divided into different compartments, is both an obvious social and political metaphor as it as useful narrative tool. Each compartment essentially sheds light to a new plot development or twist.
Snowpiercer adopts the perspective of the marginalized. Curtis (Chris Evans), along with Gilliam (John Hurt) and Edgar (Jamie Bell) lead an uprising of the tail-end of the train. Their conditions are that of the poverty-stricken: forced to subsist of gelatinous protein bars (little more than a mix of insects) and reprimanded with the loss of limbs. The heinous actions of the elite, particularly Mason’s (Tilda Swinton, providing the most deliberately cartoonish and disturbingly humorous characters of the film) only strengthens the rebellion’s resolve.
What proceeds is a violent action picture that utilizes its cramped conditions to heighten the increasing sense of social and political paranoia. Joon-ho’s facilities as an action director have never been quite so impressive, essentially picking up on the trends of South Korean contemporaries like Park Chan-wook (serving as a producer for Snowpiercer) and Kim Jee-woon. But what remains clear is that Joon-ho’s new bag of stylistic tendencies are largely in response to the material he tackles: he can modulate between the expansive and the insular with ease while maintaining his directorial integrity as a man studying the social conditions of his characters. While the picture doesn’t present the rich social texture of Joon-ho’s previous pictures (in large part because of their inherently relatable setting), Snowpiercer remains an exceedingly thrilling exercise from a director who seems to be able to move from genre to genre while still maintaining a sense of artistic identity.