"Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn't. A shoe doesn't belong on your head.
A shoe belongs on your foot; a hat belongs on your head. I am a hat, you are a shoe... Yes? So it is...
Eternal order is prescribed by the Sacred Engine. All things flow from the Sacred Engine. All things in their place, all passengers in their section. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe. Yes? So it is."
A.D. 2014: With Global Warming out of control, raising Earth temperatures to dangerous levels, world leaders in 79 countries take the joint decision to release coolant gas CW7 into the atmosphere to bring ecosystems back into balance... The world freezes; the resultant 'Ice Age' leaving the Earth too cold to sustain life...
A.D. 2031: For 17 years, the remnants of humanity have survived on a modern day 'Ark'; a train powered by an eternal engine designed, built and run by Wilford (Ed Harris).
In the interim, a class chasm has come to exist in this societal microcosm with the privileged upper echelons residing at the front of the train, near the 'Divine Engine', having formed a dictatorship over time; oppressing and brutalising those in the overcrowded rear ghetto deemed by their overlords to be of such low class and standing that their very lives are of negligible importance.
Neither willing to take any more beatings, torture and random killings nor prepared to accept an almost penal existence on the very edge of starvation, Curtis (Chris Evans) - under guidance from aged mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) - finally decides the time has come to find a way to reach the front of the train and seize control. With intel messages from an unknown source (contained in bullets hidden in the processed food rations) urging him to enlist the help of Nam-goong Min-soo (Song Kang-ho) - an electronics expert with a drug addiction to engine waste Kronol - to open the locked and heavily guarded carriage doors, Curtis realises that breaking Min-soo out of the train's prison section where he's currently being held must be his first port of call.
However, even getting to Min-soo will be a mission in itself and a likely blood-soaked one, at that...
With real-life revelations relating to atrocities suffered by innocent civilians within dictatorships and militaristic regimes regularly making headlines in press and media reports throughout the free world - from Gaddafi's enslavement of Libyan women for the purpose of his own twisted sexual gratification; to Kim Jong-il's obsession with world cinema and indulgence in fine whisky and food while North Korean citizens have existed on the edge of starvation, banned from accessing all but state-created media and likely to face torture and/or imprisonment for even failing to exalt their current 'Great Leader', Kim Jong-un; and far beyond - 'Snowpiercer's' fictional dystopian tale (based on the French graphic novel 'Le Transperceneige'; written by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette) will likely forever have eminent topicality. That being the case, almost any viewer watching 'Snowpiercer' will be presented with what could easily be deemed analogies to numerous closed and militaristic regimes, along with seeming veiled, yet clear, references to crimes against humanity that take place all too often around the globe.
Whether Snowpiercer's narrative facilitating any, some or all of the above was partly what drew one of Korea's most well known and respected 'big name' directors, Bong Joon-ho, to take the helm of the project (and the equally famous Park Chan-wook to sign on as producer) is of course pure conjecture - in spite of many South Korean film-makers (including Park Chan-wook) having regularly jumped at any chance to cinematically detail, dissect and critique the regime of their northern neighbours - but what, to my mind, is virtually irrefutable is the appeal to Bong Joon-ho of the narrative's starting point of governments releasing a gas (CW7) into the atmosphere with disastrous environmental and societal consequences; an idea that the director had already referenced twice in 2008's 'The Host' (in the dumping of chemical waste leading to the creation of the 'monster'; and in the government's decision to release Agent Orange gas into the atmosphere to kill the creature, not caring that any humans in the vicinity would also invariably die) and, in fact, Bong Joon-ho has stated that he first became aware of the original 'Le Transperceneige' graphic novel during preproduction of that very film, 'The Host'. Not only that, but Bong Joon-ho has previously also told stories of the common man (in the case of 'The Host'; woman in the case of 'Mother') risking everything to save those he/she cares about, and that, in essence, is the hero's tale that 'Snowpiercer's' narrative is deftly wrapped around.
And speaking of the film's main hero, Curtis, the detailing of his individual character arc is archetypal to say the least, following a great many of the steps in what is generally known as the 'Monomyth' (or hero's journey) seen in classic literature from as far back as Greek and Roman mythology: The 'Call to Arms' - Curtis deciding that the time has come to fight back against the train's overlords; the 'Refusal of the Call' - Curtis refusing to accept being considered as the leader of his group; the 'Supernatural Aid' - Min-soo's teenage daughter (played by Ko Ah-seong) having psychic abilities; failure in the 'Road of Trials' - Curtis in the past having been unable to sacrifice the very thing that would (temporarily) have given his 'people' food; and, of course, 'Atonement with the Father' - Curtis separated from all those around him to face the holder of power in his world (Wilford) and face his destiny and ultimate choice. Whether our hero fulfils the final 'Metamorphosis' of the Monomyth and changes from the person he originally was... well... I'll leave the answer to that for you to discover when you watch the film. All of which, in short, adds up to 'Snowpiercer' telling a futuristic, dystopian tale that is at the same time refreshingly original, subconsciously familiar and effortlessly 'classic'.
However, let's not forget that 'Snowpiercer's' raison d’être is to stand as entertainment and this it achieves with gripping aplomb. From the rollercoaster ride of both the characters and the train itself; to the memorable and deeply idiosyncratic main characters; to the intelligent, witty often funny and even deliberately 'kooky' dialogue; to the ultimate statement of hope, the success with which 'Snowpiercer' achieves its goals makes it blatantly obvious why Korean film critics deemed it the best film of 2013.
Cinematically, 'Snowpiercer' is astounding; the almost painfully bright snow covered vistas and cities through which the eternal train hurtles at breakneck speed looking serenely hostile and strikingly real and while CGI is used extensively throughout 'Snowpiercer' it never makes itself noticeable. As Curtis and his compatriots battle their way closer to the front of the train to take control of the Sacred Engine, each carriage has somewhat of a colour scheme of its own; gradually increasing in Technicolor terms as the home of the train's upper classes is revealed. In fact, as the front compartments are approached and traversed, 'Snowpiercer' takes on a visual beauty akin to that seen in so much of Park Chan-wook's films, perfectly contrasting the bleak existence of the rear carriage dwellers with the opulence taken for granted by the 'First Class' passengers. Not only that, but the utterly vicious and brutally violent main axe fight against hooded assassins - played in slow motion with a single piano accompaniment - feels more of a blood-soaked dance than a free for all; again underlining the fact that for Curtis and his associates beauty is always tinged with pain and death.
Of course, ask almost any director whether overall story or character depth is more important and they'll likely pause for thought but in the case of 'Snowpiercer' each is as perfectly realised as the other. All of the main characters have their own unique personalities with which their specific dialogue styles go hand in hand; from Curtis' troubled mind at the pain of his people and his regular 'Let's keep moving forward' statements; to Min-soo's sarcasm and willingness to do whatever is required to get more Kronol for himself and his feisty daughter; to Edgar's (Jamie Bell) fast-talking quips and impatient profanity-filled rants (for example, when Edgar discovers that Min-soo is being held in the train's prison section he points out that if he was really was such a talented electronics expert then surely he'd already have broken out himself), each is superbly created and presented.
However, while all are unquestionably memorable, none can even come close to holding a candle to the severely twisted and deeply eccentric characterisation of Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton); the public face, if you will, of the oppressors. Not only are her lectures about the Sacred Engine, the Divine Mr. Wilford and the preordained pecking order pious to the point of sadism (and yes, there are repeated inferences throughout 'Snowpiercer' to the creation and growth of almost a religion within the train), they combine with her false-toothed, bespectacled visage to make her entire persona genuinely contorted and hideously funny. Ultimately, as with any such oppressor hiding behind guns and soldiers, Minister Mason soon shows herself to be a self-serving, two faced coward and Tilda Swinton's incredible performance combined with Bong Joon-ho's wonderful characterisation and dialogue makes her the one character you'll love to hate more than any other, to the nth degree.
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-seong, Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Running Time: 126 minutes (approx.)
Language: English (80%), Korean (20%)
Based on the French graphic novel 'Le Transperceneige', 'Snowpiercer' can equally be viewed as an analogy to and critique of real world oppression; a hero's journey in classic Monomyth style; or simply a gripping and exciting rollercoaster ride of entertainment. Whether you choose just one or a combination of the above for your focus, one thing is guaranteed: 'Snowpiercer' will leave you both exhilarated and breathless.