Film review: Snowpiercer

Tilda Swinton in full flow in Snowpiercer. Picture: Contributed

Tilda Swinton in full flow in Snowpiercer. Picture: Contributed

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AS THE Edinburgh International Film Festival moves into its first weekend, it brings with it one of its most anticipated films.

Snowpiercer - Directed By Bong Joon-Ho

****

Set on an ark-like train containing the last remnants of humanity after a failed experiment to halt global warming plunges the world into a new ice age, Snowpiercer marks the English language debut of South Korean genre maverick Bong Joon-ho and has generated a lot of hype already thanks to a well-publicised spat between Bong and his US distributor Harvey Weinstein, who apparently wanted to snip the running time and add a clarifying voice-over, but in the end settled on a scaled-back (ie cheaper) US release in return for giving Bong final cut.

If that recalls Terry Gilliam’s protracted battles with the studios over the release of Brazil, it’s a reference Bong consciously courts with the film itself, not only in the thematic concerns of its plot, but also by casting John Hurt as a character called Gilliam. Hurt’s presence as a sage of the oppressed also brings to the mind the film version of 1984 – and in addition to George Orwell, the story (which Bong and co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson have adapted from a French graphic novel) owes a big debt to Jonathan Swift’s satirical tract A Modest Proposal, with the titular train (so called for its ability to smash through ice as it rattles endlessly through the frozen landscapes) functioning as a non-too-subtle metaphor for the inequities of a social order that functions by the privileged few consuming the lifeblood of the many.

If that makes Snowpiercer sound like derivative dystopian sci-fi, though, Bong’s approach to the genre helps it transcend its many influences. Eschewing the standard action beats of a Hollywood blockbuster, he takes his time setting up the characters and the train’s claustrophobic environment, but pays this off with the relentless forward momentum of a plot that sees Captain America star Chris Evans lead a revolt of the train’s tail-end inhabitants (among them Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Ewan Bremner) – one that requires them to fight their way to the front in order to seize control of the engine.

The train’s varying class-based compartments (one of which is a sushi restaurant in carriage-sized aquarium) allows Bong to unleash the full force of his imagination as well as providing him with unusual backdrops for staging action set pieces, which he does with typical élan (a literal firefight in a blacked-out carriage on New Year’s Eve is the highlight).

He also fills the movie with weird and wonderfully oddball characters, chief among them a ruthless, order-obsessed bureaucrat played by a Yorkshire-accented Tilda Swinton with the menace of Margaret Thatcher, the eye-wear of Deirdre Barlow and the dental work of Janet Street-Porter.

In the end, Snowpiercer may lack some of the force of Bong’s South Korean work, but it’s recognisably of a piece with the likes of The Host and Mother and works an entertainingly off-kilter slice of pulpy mainstream filmmaking, executed with humour, verve and vision.

• Snowpiercer screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival tomorrow and 28 June. For times and tickets see www.edfilmfest.org.uk

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