2013 was a frantic and fascinating year for Korean cinema. In addition to the recording-breaking figures the domestic box office reported, it was a year that saw three of Korea's top directing talents venture into English-language films. First it was Kim Jee-woon that enticed Arnold Schwarzenegger to get back to bullets in "The Last Stand", Park Chan-wook took Wentworth Miller's sizzling debut script and summoned "Stoker", and then Bong Joon-ho adapted the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" and ran with it all the way to the bank. The results were three highly polished and enticing features that displayed the cinematic craftsmanship of three of Korea's most progressive and celebrated moviemakers. Within this talented trio, however, it was Bong Joon-ho's futuristic extravaganza "Snowpiercer" that gathered the most momentum, attracting more than 9.3 million viewers to its epically fantastical imagining of a not-so-distance dystopia.
"Snowpiercer" takes us to the near future where the impact of global warming can no longer be debated or dismissed. The future of mankind demands that drastic action be taken, but our ignorant intervention brings about unintended consequences and, instead of hopeful homeostasis, nature rebels and wraps itself in a frostbitten blanket that snuffs out man's rule. The only survivors now live aboard a transnational train that circles the planet; a sleek steel cylinder that cruises around and around the ice-ridden continents with the last of our kind as perpetual prisoners.
The quality of life for those on board is far from a snuggly socialists' security blanket, this hyperactive vessel may run forever (thanks to its 'divine engine'), but the majority of humans within are forced to adapt to the harsh hierarchy imposed on them by their boarding passes. Those who occupy the frontal compartments live in lurid and lavish conditions, while the souls in the rear are crammed together in low-lit bunks and tight tunnels that make up the train's intestinal track. It is here, deep within the belly of this busy beast, that Bong's story begins.
The rear residences have had enough of the gelatinous protein bars fed to them, the claustrophobic confinement, their grimy quarters, and, in general, the distance dictatorship that registers their fate. They dream dirty dreams of overthrowing the omnipotent authority that trickles down from the upper echelons of the train's segmented system. Their reluctant leader, Curtis played by Chris Evans, has a plan, and, with the socialized support of his band of loyal inmates, he embarks on a daring plan to confront the benevolent Wilford-the omnipotent overlord of this locomotive's compartmentalized cruelty, and the evil engineer behind the train's magical mechanics.
"Snowpiecer" is graphic in all conceivable senses of the word. Its paperback origins percolate Bong's picture through single-minded characters, its hermetic narrative, gory gusto, and back again. This is a world no longer ruled by Elbowroom and realism, but a concentrated and frantic fantasy that straddles the uncanny valley daringly. Expect expressive excess and speculative cynicism, surreal surroundings and chilling cinematography. Indeed, suspend your disbelief and prepare to embark on a riveting ride through an intoxicating imaginarium of cinematic delight.
Bong boasts the support of Hong Kyung-pyo, a marvelous cinematographer whose visions in "Snowpiercer" are crisp, curious, and cruel. Almost every frame in this train is saturated with subtext and roars with eye-rotting candy as he captures action, atmosphere, and atrocity in the most compelling fashion. The train's confinements are given extraordinary depth and richness, and as the focus racks and reels from one moment to the next viewers will no doubt feel their pupils dilate in delight. The costumes, set-design, and textures are all heightened and highlighted through the divine coupling of Hong and Bong's oneiric ostentations. This vain train speaks for itself though, and regardless of who set this loci into motion it's runaway with their efforts and screams around every blind bend and peak.
The film is also stuffed with star power. In addition to Chris Evans, "Snowpiercer" contains a diversity of talents in the form of Ed Harris, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, as well as some Korean chap named Song Kang-ho. While the pages from which their characters where drawn did dictate the number of dimensions granted to them, it didn't derail the film's demonic desire to streamline its puppets into single-minded saints of the cause. Expect no multi-facetted performances here, instead come prepared to stare at stunning singularity qua twisted travelling circus.
Despite a few scoldings over its special effects, slight loss of story steam, and perhaps a few qualms aimed at its French-induced obscurantism, "Snowpiercer" is a terrific and fantastical thrill ride with concealed and revealed brilliance throughout. It is also a feature that, fittingly, encourages multiple viewings, as with each trip your ticket will be stamped towards intellectual enrichment. The prize here is cerebral as well as sensual pleasures wrapped in warped cinematic wonderment that should not be missed.
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