Bong Joon Ho has finally become a globally recognised name after his most recent feature dominated awards season. But before Parasite, there was Snowpiercer; a film equally concerned with class and status as its successor, but the ‘horizontal’ progression of it to Parasite’s ‘vertical’. With its initial UK distribution limited in 2013 (a side effect of long-term disagreements between the project and US producer Harvey Weinstein), Bong’s science fiction thriller about survival, status and succession is finally getting the re-release it deserves.
After reaching the point of no return from global warming, a concept seemingly timelier now than the film’s release seven years ago (or even the novel’s in the 80s), a last-ditch attempt to save the planet plunges the Earth into an ice age instead. Years later, the survivors live on a train speeding around the continents, but those onboard are not equal. The poorer passengers are confined to the end of the train and victim to the whims of the train’s militarised authority. But rebellion has been stewing, and the man Kurtis (Chris Evans) will lead an uprising from the tail-end to take over the train, reach the front, and confront the deified train designer Wilford (Ed Harris).
The film is based off of a French graphic novel that Bong read standing in a bookshop from start to finish but didn’t have enough money on him at the time to buy. And, re-watching it for the third time, it strikes me that no one other than Bong could have made it. His meticulous tendency to storyboard everything combines with the graphic-novel nature of the story to create a sickeningly believable microcosmic world within these train carriages, made more substantial by its aesthetics. Grey metal walls and bunk beds are one thing, but add in one-person saunas and an aquarium tunnel and suddenly the spectrum of class gets all the more palpable.
Class has always been a favoured theme of this director, but it stretches further than just financial poverty; it expands into the elitism of knowledge and choice. An unsettling scene in an elementary classroom featuring an offbeat propaganda song sung by creepy teacher and small children alike even touches upon the indoctrination that keeps societies like these in power. The film plays the fine balance between shocking the audience with some truly stomach-turning moments, while also quietly asking the question: would you turn a blind eye too? Bong was starting the conversation that made Parasite so vastly popular in the West: who really are the parasites of society?
Snowpiercer is, before anything else, a gritty dystopian thriller about a man trying to find liberty for his community and redemption for himself – and a beautifully designed one at that, both visually and narratively (as the most expensive Korean film ever made, you’d hope so). But if you’ve seen any of Bong’s other works, you’ll know that he’s a master of addressing the thematic issues without preaching through the screen, but through entertainment. Because somehow Snowpiercer—a film containing hacking off of limbs, consuming insect-based food, and gutting fish just to intimidate your victims— is genuinely funny at times.
If you needed any more convincing of Bong’s versatility as a director (remember, he went from this to a story about a little girl and her giant pig), credit should be given to the fact that Snowpiercer is an English-language film from a Korean director, that uses language and cultural perspective as a tool in the movie’s very storytelling. One of the key characters Namgoong, played by Bong’s long-time collaborator Song Kang Ho, speaks no English, with only his daughter (Ko Asung) able to occasionally translate. As the only man who can unlock the final door to Wilford, that’s a bit of an obstacle for the hero— and yet it is with Namgoong that eventually has the deepest understanding with Kurtis. It just goes to show that at the end of the world the labels of nationality, class and skill are obsolete. Just get the job done.
Snowpiercer will be available for the first time on UK Blu-Ray from May 25th
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.