Snowpiercer ★★★★

I still need to see Bong's first feature, BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE, but I would say SNOWPIERCER doesn't quite match up to the level of his other Korean films. But if this is his weakest (or second weakest), it is the sort of curve-obliterating lowest score that ranking becomes irrelevant. The best, by far, of the recent crop of transplant vehicles for Korean auteurs, SNOWPIERCER is necessarily limited, spatially, by its conceit, and some of the action falls into the pitfalls of jittery editing and confusing collisions of bodies that typifies US genre films now.

Yet it also makes the most of its space, and as the film wears on, its fights become more elegant as Bong stretches out in each compartment and explores its contours. The axe battle is initially a maelstrom, but watch how the sequence consistently changes up its parameters, going from a jumbled melee to a slo-mo delight set to an étude, to a bewilderingly graceful ceasefire to a massacre filmed in POV night vision. This is all, technically, the same sequence, but it exhibits more imagination and variation than whole films a good half-hour longer.

"World-building" is the fetish du jour of blockbusters presented as intelligent, and these days tentpoles spend the majority of their running time just endlessly calling attention to what's so special about their little universe. SNOWPIERCER is predicated on this, with the "closed ecosystem" of the train laid out a series of ever-changing levels, from grimy hovels with amenities made from refuse to aquarium cars and compartments for druggy raves. Yet it does not wallow in its extreme detail, leaving background as background as it moves forward with great purpose. When the film stops, which it often does, it is for strange grace notes like a sushi meal, not a tedious explanation of how, exactly, an aquarium car maintains its temperature, or a chemical breakdown of what goes into that industrial-waste drug that Song Kang-ho's character obsessively collects.

As such, it's an actually successful work of world-building, maybe the most well-conceived, intricate and cohesively integrated into the film since BRAZIL, which Bong obviously adores (he names the film's guru Gilliam, ffs). And instead of making something so detailed and then putting another serious, dour cast in it, the film goes WILD with its performances. Yes, Evans is playing the usual troubled, brooding leader, but everyone around him is hilariously amped-up, from Song and Go's beautiful father-daughter act (have junkie relatives ever been portrayed as so capable and not utterly damaged?) to even the man behind the curtain being so loose that he urges Curtis not to be so uptight.

And then there's Tilda Swinton in the most entertaining performance of the year, trailed only by her own work in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. Her clipped Yorkshire/Scotch accent is gnarled by emotions that are never simply felt but explode from every pore and can switch from pure contempt to groveling obsequiousness in an instant. When a subordinate cries that he will be killed if she does not surrender, she throws a shrug so outlandish it verges on b-boying; threatened with death, she pledges allegiance to killing the conductor with as much zeal as she referred to him as a divinity not 20 seconds previously. This is unhinged Swinton, but it's also a demonstration of what Bong brings to the movie and to American movies in general.

This kind of out-there acting is standard fare in Korean genre movies, but the US has a crippling dedication to "believability," which has been condescendingly interpreted to be as literal-minded as possible to win over a well-researched but vaguely defined mass-demographic. Swinton plays to the room, not the theater full of texting teens and inattentive old people but to the undulating interior of some madman's doomsday ride, and it is her, not the fussily crafted tail section, that gives the first indication that SNOWPIERCER will be its own, wonderful beast.

One last note, it's refreshing to see a class warfare film that does not pull its radical punches by suggesting that proles killing the wealthy is unseemly and barbaric. As the (admittedly odd and somewhat forced) climactic twist makes clear, the only difference between Curtis' revolt and the natural order of things is that when Curtis leads his people through the train, "important" people also die, not just unwashed masses. And Bong's idea of even-handed portrayal of the pitfalls of power is not to portray Curtis as being as bad as Wilford in his own way, but to make a lateral move at the conclusion that suggests that the only way to dismantle our ensconced understanding of power and class division is with the literal extinction of humanity. This is straight nihilism, and yet the movie has an absurdist, almost whimsical streak that makes it perversely lighter than the superhero movies we're being fed every year. God I love this movie.