Snowpiercer is not the first Bong Joon-ho film I watched; it’s not even the second. It’s a film I watched blind on Netflix in the middle of my Chris Evans phase, and it’s a classic I’ve been thinking about ever since.
The film is set in an Arctic world where the only survivors live on a train condemned to perpetually complete a year-long loop around the world. Class is replicated along the carriages: the richest are at the front of the train, and the dirt poorest live in the “tail section”.
Like his Oscar-winning Parasite, Snowpiercer is a commentary on class, though it’s a much more visceral one. The contrast between the front and back of the train couldn’t be more extreme: the back is grey, grimy, and gritty, while the front is colourful and vibrant. The characters from higher classes are much more comic in tone than the serious, determined characters of the tail section, because the tail sectioners really have nothing to laugh about.
While Parasite talks about class through smell, Snowpiercer tackles it through sight. The lack of access that the tail sectioners have to the rest of the train, too, is reflective of the difficulty of social mobility. Bong Joon-ho doesn’t like to muck around with his social commentary: he says it as it is. Class becomes geographical.
It’s hard to pinpoint what it is specifically about the film that made such an impression on me – rather, it’s the combination of visuals, performances, and the choreography of scenes that transform it into a piece of stunning artwork. For Bong Joon-ho’s first film in the English language, it’s an incredible – and bold – effort. The film balances high-stakes action sequences with poignant moments: parents and children are torn apart, and as the film unravels, so does the dirty history of the tail section.
Snowpiercer’s tail section rebellion is led by Chris Evans’s Curtis Everett. Though Evans’s acting skills have often been doubted, he pulls off a masterfully emotional performance as the determined but emotionally exhausted leader. You can see the weight of tail section lives resting on his shoulders.
The culmination of his performance, in an emotional scene outside of the train’s mythical engine room, stunned me the first time I watched it – both in terms of content and delivery. Bong Joon-ho’s refusal to sugarcoat the harsh realities of being at the bottom of the heap gives the film an unexpected emotional punch.
But one of the other things that stuck out to me the most was the blend of English and Korean. Parasite’s Song Kang-ho and The Host’s Go Ah-sung appear as Namgoong Minsoo and his daughter Yona, and while both characters have varying levels of fluency in English, they refuse to cave to the demands of other characters and speak largely in Korean, translated through a device. Against Harvey Weinstein’s wishes, Joon-ho stuck to his guns, and the films is all the better for it.
Maybe what stands out the most, then, is Bong Joon-ho’s confidence in his own distinct directorial voice – in his beautiful visuals, his ability to bring genre thrills and emotional truths together, and his loud and proud messages. He’s one of the best filmmakers working today – and hopefully, with Parasite’s Oscar wins, people will revisit his earlier works, because none of them are to be missed.
Illustration: Emily Lowes