The concept behind Bong Joon-ho’s 2014 film Snowpiercer requires more than a little explanation. It is the near future, and the world has frozen; an attempt to halt global warming has gone terribly wrong, resulting in drastic, civilisation-destroying cooling. The few living humans who remain survive on board a train (called The Rattling Ark) that forever circles the globe. The occupants – immune to the extreme weather outside – have, over the course of seventeen years, built an extremely linear society for themselves. The poor majority reside at the rear of the train in cramped, diseased, wretched conditions. Meanwhile, at the front end of the train, everything is rather more civilised; while the back-of-train passengers are eating bugs and sleeping fifty to a carriage, the first class inhabitants enjoy raves, sushi, saunas and adequate schooling for their children.
Any revolt by the poor and downtrodden is, of course, met with extreme violence. It’s a classic dystopian scenario – except that in this case it takes place entirely within the narrow confines of a train. Fights (and there are many) are graphic and bloody, and the details of the downtrodden existence of the third-class passengers are sometimes hard to stomach. There’s no denying that Snowpiercer is grim on several different levels, but it is also wonderfully absurd. Just before one of the most casualty-intensive fights in the whole film, we watch one of the masked combatants brandish a huge fish at our protagonists, before dipping his axe into a gash in its side. No real explanation for this strange practice is ever given, but it adds an almost comic element of puzzlement to the ensuing gory battle. Earlier on, we witness the punishment inflicted on a rebellious third-class passenger: his arm is forced out through a small port in the side of the train until it is frozen solid, then smashed with a comically-massive hammer.
It’s odd to see such excessive violence and deprivation tinted with a wicked sense of humour, but Snowpiercer pulls this admixture off with a style reminiscent of the excesses of Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy or the surreal crookedness of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. And, in the course of doing so, it manages to be consistently visually stunning. From the hefty, steampunk architecture of the train itself, to the detailed costumes, to the battered props and the frantic choreography of the fight scenes Snowpiercer looks good. Not surprising, perhaps, when you consider that it has the rich visual material of a graphic novel (Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette) to draw on as its inspiration. Every shot is worth watching twice, and even though all of the action essentially takes place in a single narrow corridor the film is anything but simplistic. Take a look at this YouTube video for an insight into some of the cleverer visual tricks used in the construction of the world of Snowpiercer.
That said, in order to truly enjoy more than just the visuals of Snowpiercer, one does need to be in a particular frame of mind. It is a film of symbols rather than one that rewards a relentless adherence to reason. There are, if you wish to look for them, gaping plot holes: no clue is given as to how the tracks on which the train runs have been maintained for the last eighteen years, nor any reason for the train to keep running in the first place. Snowpiercer, however, makes no apology for these omissions – indeed the whole thing is so gripping that it’s difficult to care. You accept the absurdity, the impossibility, and the strangeness of Snowpiercer almost without question as you’re swept up in its relentless forward momentum.
The plot follows the progress of the first successful revolt by the poor and downtrodden at the back of the train. Assisted by a security expert and his psychic daughter, the tail passengers forge their way through wagon after wagon of delights and horrors, in search of the engine that powers the train and its ever-elusive architect and keeper Wilford. It may seem like the narrative basis of any by-the-numbers dystopian futuristic thriller from today’s cinema listings, but Snowpiercer‘s humour, lunacy and refusal to conform renders it something new and striking that defies most rational explanation. Suffice to say, it’s one of the strangest and most notable films you’ll see all year, so watch it if you can.