In the past 15 years, South Korea has experienced the most staggering cinematic renaissance since Easy Rider
and Midnight Cowboy
ushered in independent American filmmaking. With visually hyperkinetic storytelling heaped with unexpected dollops of humor, Korean directors have embraced genre filmmaking while forging new ground. Expectations for Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer
were astronomical. This is, after all, the most expensive Korean movie yet made, helmed by the director of The Host
, a tender meditation on family disguised as a monster flick. His follow-up, Mother
, was a heart-wrenching master class in suspense and mystery. Snowpiercer
is a dystopian parable set during a human-induced ice age in which the remnants of the human race populate a self-sustaining train endlessly circling the globe. The rich live in the front of the train, where they’re treated to steaks and pedicures. The poor are relegated to the back, where they’re beaten by guards and subsist on mysterious protein bars. That sounds like a simple enough premise for a ham-fisted tale. Yet Snowpiercer
is the most inventive science-fiction picture in years, the most original action film in a decade and perhaps the most all-around entertaining movie so far this year. The story centers on a revolution led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), who take a mob from the train’s caboose to its engine. The front of the train offers a reckoning with Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s designer, as well as vengeance against Mason (Tilda Swinton, stealing the movie), a toothily Thatcherian overseer who uses creative torture to control the masses. Some might fault the way scenes jackknife from hallucinogenic serenity to a close-quarters gunfight, all the while piling on enough surrealist, dystopian imagery to fuel the rest of Terry Gilliam’s career. Some might consider the political allegories too on-the-nose. But a little heavy-handedness can be forgiven when the result is this bracing.