July 1 2014 07:02 PM

Bong Joon-ho's English-language debut propels with reckless abandon

Chris Evans (center) wants an upgrade to first class.

In Snowpiercer, a self-sustaining high-speed train carries what's left of the world's population on a track that spans the length of the globe. Each car has a function and class distinction, with the well-to-do inhabiting the head sections and the poor living in squalor at the tail. There's only ice beyond the locomotive's steel skin, the rest of the globe frozen by a crippling cooling agent dispersed 17 years before to reverse global warming. To this point, there have been two attempts at revolution. There's about to be a third. 

Curtis (Chris Evans) leads this latest insurgency with quiet determination, exploding violently only when the situation calls for it. He's a strategist and a brute, essentially a modern version of an archetype that Lee Marvin used to play. Advised by friend and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and his dirty-faced soldiers storm the guards and begin making their way to the front, where the train's creator Wilford (a talky Ed Harris) oversees the engine. To open the reinforced cargo doors that connect each car, the revolutionaries recruit a prisoner named Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho), the security specialist who designed all the locks.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho, the South Korean auteur known for melding genres with efficient ease, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi bruiser. It's as visually accomplished and morally ambiguous as Bong's serial-killer masterpiece, Memories of Murder, but also steadfast and fleet like his monster-movie mash-up, The Host. As Curtis and his legion propel forward, each car holding different challenges and adversaries, Bong amps up the urgency and human cost, never shying away from the brutality of hand-to-hand combat.

The most ambitious example of Snowpiercer's fierce aesthetic comes midway through the film, when Curtis' ranks face off against Wilford's hooded thugs carrying axes and spears. Not since the opening scene of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York has there been such a ferocious close-contact battle. Limited space in the train car makes the proximity of the fighters feel even more merciless, and the audience feels every pummeling blow. Bong uses slow motion to trace Curtis' individual charge forward, dodging sharp objects by mere inches before remorselessly counter-attacking. 

Other action scenes stand out for Bong's mastery of timing and movement. A bathhouse sequence uses steam to mask a sense of direction, whereas a long-range shootout between Curtis and Wilford's main goon takes place between two separate sections of the train hundreds of feet away. Bong manages to make each new space feel dynamic, especially the opulent rooms where the wealthy indulge on sushi, booze and a drug called Kronol. The insurgents' rage is momentarily interrupted when they come in contact with elements of normal life once thought extinct: Chicken, champagne and hardboiled eggs are just a few revelations.

Snowpiercer—which opens Wednesday, July 2—progresses onward at an alarming rate but slows to nearly a crawl in the final moments, allowing for necessary subtext and hidden trauma to fill in the blanks of the story. Some critics see these scenes as bloated, too metaphorical amid their insistence on placing meaning on all the bloodshed. But as with his previous work, Bong is fascinated with the sudden emotional crash that follows adrenaline-packed scenarios. The moment where Curtis confesses a damning sin to Nam while smoking the last cigarette on Earth proves to be a potent reminder of the soul residing behind the blood-caked face.  

For all the propulsive chaos that erupts within Snowpiercer, it's a film with a reflective and yearning center. It doesn't have plot holes as much as interesting narrative mysteries that are mentioned but never resolved, suggesting even more depth beyond the action façade. Bong might be a master of creating the tumultuous now, but his kinetic filmmaking style is all in service of pushing these tortured characters toward a future solace in the icy world beyond. 

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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