Bong Joon-ho got the inspiration for Snowpiercer from a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige. This three-part series by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette is set on a train with a perpetual motion engine in a post-apocalyptic world. Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson took the basic idea of an ice age caused by an experiment gone wrong and a train housing the remnants of humanity, and expanded on it, adding layers of satire and philosophical ruminations over the nature of class struggle. In the film, the elite occupy the luxury carriages at the front of the Snowpiercer train, while the underclass suffers in the 'tail section'. Under the reluctant leadership of Curtis (Chris Evans), the oppressed storm the prison section and free Namgoong (Song Kang-ho), the man who designed the train's security system. But that's only the start of their troubles...
Though Snowpiercer is mostly in English and has an American actor in the lead, it released first in South Korea, Bong's native country, in August last year. Despite its strong showing at the Asian box-office and the critical hosannas it received at various festival screenings, an Indian theatrical release does not appear to be on the horizon. This is a pity: Snowpiercer is a singular, striking film which deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible. Like Bong's other experiments with genre (Memories of Murder, The Host), it is both unique and indebted to other, similar films. Here are five close and distant cousins of Snowpiercer.
Every sci-fi film made after 1927 owes at least something to Fritz Lang's silent classic. But Snowpiercer is especially reminiscent of Metropolis; both films ground their sci-fi stylings in tales of class conflict, crudely outlining the disparity between the vulgar rich and desperate poor (bizarrely, both films also feature the sacrifice of a hand). Hoo's film is also shot through with a very Langian pessimism; in Metropolis, the workers are relegated to "their proper place, the depths", while the evil bureaucrat Mason (an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) in Snowpiercer tells an angry throng, "We must occupy our preordained position. I belong to the front, you belong to the tail."
Children of Men (2006)
In its first half, Snowpiercer recalls the grungy, gritty vision of the future that Alfonso Cuaron put forward so convincingly in Children of Men. The colour palate — all greys and dirty browns — is the same, as is the idea of the government as a violent Big Brother and society as a police state. The threat of extinction provides the motive force in both films — a permanent ice age in Snowpiercer, world-wide infertility in Children of Men. They're also linked by the kinetic energy of their action sequences, even though Bong prefers stylised fights with a lot of cuts, while Cuaron opts for long-take, documentary-style realism (it's one of few films I've seen that allows blood to spatter on the camera lens — and stay there).
The Truman Show (1998)
Like the artificial reality-show universe in The Truman Show, Snowpiercer uses its enclosed setting as a microcosm — and satire — of the world at large. Bong deploys Alison Pill's batty schoolteacher in much the same way as Peter Weir did Laura Linney in The Truman Show: a parody of all-American wholesomeness that twists unexpectedly in another direction. The two films are also linked by the presence of Ed Harris, whose turn as a soft-spoken but ruthless visionary in Snowpiercer is a variation on Christof, the character he played in The Truman Show.
Soylent Green (1973)
In the sci-fi film pantheon, Soylent Green occupies a comfortable middle rung. Solid but hardly dazzling, it owes its fame to a remarkably disturbing ending in which Charlton Heston's detective discovers the dark secret behind the food substitute called Soylent Green. Whether intentional or not, there's a moment in Snowpiercer involving a substance called Protein Block that could easily qualify as a tribute to that scene. There's an even darker moment of revelation towards the end of the film, one that brings into sharp relief a phrase that's repeated several times during the film — "Know your place".
The Raid: Redemption (2011)
The only real connection between Gareth Evans' supremely violent martial arts cop flick and Snowpiercer is their shared membership of an unlikely action movie genre — the "people travelling the length of an enclosed space and killing everything along the way" film. While The Raid and Pete Travis' 2012 Dredd had the good guys slaughtering their way up high-rises, Snowpiercer takes Curtis and his cohorts from the back of the train to the engine room (the film's tagline is "Fight your way to the front"). On the way, they encounter sharpshooters, armed militia and masked men with axes and night-vision goggles, an opportunity for Bong to unleash several scenes of stylised hyperviolence.
This piece appeared in Sunday Guardian. Snowpiercer is out on DVD in India.