That action films need not be mindless is self-evident, despite Hollywood's recent best attempts to prove otherwise; that science fiction often reflects the concerns and moods at the time of its production is also self-evident, despite the recent addiction to super-hero tales that American studios can't seem to shake. Thankfully, there's Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer to cleanse the attentive cinephile's palate, with the South Korean director of the acclaimed The Host pointedly entering American blockbuster premise territory with his skewed, off-beat feel.
An almost entirely South Korean-financed production, spoken in English and shot in Europe with a multinational cast, adapting a 1982 French graphic novel, Snowpiercer, like The Host's monster-movie concept, takes on a dystopian sci-fi premise Hollywood wouldn't refuse and layers the brutally honest violent treatment we've come to expect from Mr. Bong's generation of Korean filmmakers (one of which, Oldboy's Park Chan-wook, serves as producer here). It's a film that seems almost custom designed - and stubbornly so - to fall between two stools, blaze its own trail and refuse any sort of concessions (as, indeed, is proved by the silent battle of wits the director and producers fought, and won, with Harvey Weinstein over his wish to reedit and shorten the film for US release). And it's not surprising, since Mr. Bong's career, from Memories of Murder through to Mother, has always taken place within a merry mash-up of genres rooted in the concept of family and sacrifice.
The "family", in Snowpiercer, is not exactly connected by blood ties - but rather a community linked by its situation, a community of miserable survivors from the global apocalypse packed together like despised sardines in the back carriages of the film's titular train. It's 2031 and the Snowpiercer is a perpetual-motion train traveling a circular route through the old world in the 17 years since a failed experiment to reverse global warning froze the Earth to death, with the wealthy living in comfort and pleasure at the front of the train and the wretched oppressed in the back - a sort of moving equivalent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis where the proletariat has had enough. Led by the seething Curtis (Chris Evans) and the wise elder Gilliam (John Hurt), the lower-class rises to take over the rigidly structured train.
Snowpiercer thus becomes a self-evident metaphor of the social inequality that has been in the news a lot lately, gaining an added élan from the much-talked about #occupy movement and of the Arab revolutions that raged during the film's pre-production and shoot (though, to be clear, the concept was already present in the original graphic novel written by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette). But Mr. Bong is not interested in a purely rousing feel, and here is where the sacrificial aspect of his filmmaking comes through; there is a price to pay for taking over the train, revealed slowly as Curtis and his sidekicks move forward, positing at every point tough choices where nothing comes easy or free. Setting up a challenge to the system thus becomes a painful set of choices between the lesser of two evils, graphically visible in the director's refusal to soften or cut away from the violence - it's the eternal class struggle made visible and amplified by the sheer fight for survival in a world where these may be the very last of their kind.
Expertly balancing exposition and action, Snowpiercer is alternately thoughtful and exciting, in ways very few action movies even strive for these days, allowing for the viewer to take away something more than just a mindless visual effects overdose - virtually absent here, as Mr. Bong much prefers to work within the confines of the baroque sets of Czech designer Ondrej Nekvasil and use their limitations to create a number of compelling setpieces. Admittedly, there's little effect of surprise here if you know what the director has done before, and there's often a sense that Snowpiercer rattles along more professionally than excitingly (though a very good lead, Mr. Evans lacks the charisma to rally the viewers around him, and occasionally there's a sense the train is in fact the lead character of the film). But, for all that, this is such a smart action movie and the current alternatives are so far beneath its level that any pickiness about Snowpiercer's many qualities should be promptly shooed away.
South Korea 2013
Cast Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ko Asung, Alison Pill, Vlad Ivanov, Luke Pasqualino, John Hurt, Ed Harris
Director Bong Joon-ho; screenwriters Mr. Bong and Kelly Masterson; based on a story by Mr. Bong and on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette; cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo; composer Marco Beltrami; designer Ondrej Nekvasil; costumes Catherine George; editors Steve M. Choe and Changju Kim; effects supervisor Eric Durst; producers Hong Tae-sung, Steven Nam, Park Chan-wook and Lee Tae-hun; production companies CJ Entertainment, Moho Film and Opus Pictures in association with Union Investment Partners
Screened July 15th 2014, Cinema City Campo Pequeno 3, Lisbon (distributor press screening)