Snowpiercer plows through the snow covered landscapes

Snowpiercer (설국열차) – ★★★★☆

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Director Bong Joon-ho‘s (봉준호) highly anticipated science-fiction epic Snowpiercer (설국열차) has  been in some form of development since 2004 and, nearly a decade on and sporting a $40 million price tag, finally gets a release. Currently the most expensive Korean film ever produced, featuring an international cast, and with around 80% of the dialogue in English, the film represents quite a risk for CJ Entertainment. They need not worry however, as the futuristic thriller is a darkly brilliant and enthralling experience.

Based on the French comic book series Le Transperceneige, director Bong’s adaptation is a keen and intellectual exploration of humanity and the class system set within the confines of a train. Yet it is also a violent and visceral action thriller, as tensions boil over among the last vestiges of humanity with shocking brutality. While not perfect, as the lack of character development, often predictable twists, and unrefined CGI let the film down somewhat, Snowpiercer is still a veritable thrill ride and certainly one of the best films released so far this year – by Korea or Hollywood.

The class system on the train is kept in check by sinister matriach Mason

The class system on the train is kept in check by sinister matriach Mason

In the near-future, global warming has become such an issue that the governments of the world convene and agree to release a cooling agent into the atmosphere. The experiment is a colossal failure, as the attempt plunges the world into another ice age, killing all life on the planet. The last vestiges of humanity live onboard the perpetually moving train ‘Snowpiercer’, with the passengers designated by class; the affluent live in privilege in the front carriages, while the poverty-stricken live in the rear. Angry at the unfairness and squalid living conditions, Curtis (Chris Evans) – along with protege Edgar (Jamie Bell) and mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) – lead a revolution against sinister matriarch Mason (Tilda Swinton) in order to control the engine invented by Wilford (Ed Harris). Yet to do so they will need the help of security specialist Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho (송강호) and daughter Yona (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) to unlock the gates.

Snowpiercer, arguably more than any of his prior films, reflects director Bong’s incredible visual and spatial prowess. Throwing the audience immediately into a period of revolution, director Bong conveys a world of dirt, squalor and confinement to wondrous effect. The dystopian arena is intensely claustrophobic and acutely portrayed as the camera weaves around the environment introducing the suppressed population, while the darkness removes any sense of hope. Such powerful atmospherics generate palpable tension as the corruption and hypocrisy of the class system are exposed, recalling classics such as Lang’s Metropolis (1927) as well as the contemporary economic situations in the west, which resonate deeply. Yet the real masterstroke of the clearly Marxist-inspired story lies in the journey to the engine. Each carriage door opened unveils a startling new layer of  the hierarchy that leaves the revolutionaries – and audience – dumbfounded, and each is a triumph of design. Director Bong and production designer Ondrej Nekvasil have crafted unique and spectacularly bizarre worlds within each arena, from the sugary-sweet Disnified classroom through to a hellish costume party, each a stunning visual indictment of the social elite.

Each carriage within the train is stunningly realised and reveals a new level of the society

Each carriage within the train is stunningly realised and reveals a new level of the society

In bringing the worlds within Snowpiercer to life, the ensemble cast are terrific and perfectly suited for their allotted roles. Tilda Swinton stands out as she superbly channels Margaret Thatcher-esque conservatism into the character of Mason, while Alison Pill’s fanatical school teacher is great despite short screen time. On the Korean front Song Kang-ho is highly entertaining as junkie engineer Minsu, and is given some of the best in-jokes within the film particularly regarding untranslatable Korean curse words. Ko Ah-seong fares well as Minsu’s daughter Yona, although the story involving her character isn’t really given a chance to develop. Ultimately with so many quality performers within Snowpiercer there is little room for any character save Chris Evans’ Curtis to grow, however his subplot is predictable while speeches about the past would have provided greater impetus had they been shown and not told. As several narrative tangents are left unanswered, a director’s cut of the film would be a blessing indeed.

Yet this underdevelopment is primarily due to the breakneck speed in which the film advances. The whirlwind pace of Snowpiercer is simply incredible from start to finish as the revolutionaries battle to reach the front of the train, attempting to overcome the onslaught of obstacles and hostile environments they encounter as rapidly as possible. When things do slow down it is often detrimental to characters, forcing the audience to will them on further and as such the film is constantly engaging and compelling. Occasionally to reinforce the sense of speed, the train itself is portrayed speeding through the snow covered landscapes. While such scenes are wonderful in depicting urgency and momentum as well as global warming anxieties, they also highlight some quite unrefined computer imagery which detracts from their purpose.

However the sheer pace of Snowpiercer is astounding and, alongside the visually stunning and intellectual themes featured within, the sci-fi epic is a heart-pounding experience.

Snowpiercer plows through the snow covered landscapes

Snowpiercer plows through the snow covered landscapes

Verdict:

Based on the French comic book series Le Transperceneige, director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an enthralling viewing experience. The science-fiction epic about the last vestiges of humanity is a brilliant exploration of the unfairness of the class system, conveyed with stunning visual and spatial prowess throughout. The all-star international cast are perfectly suited for their roles, with Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-seong also performing ably. The breakneck pace of the film results in little character development, yet when the themes, tensions and violence are so constantly riveting it is difficult to care. Simply put, Snowpiercer is a fantastic Korean sci-fi film.

★★★★☆

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Han-gyoo briefly meets Ji-won during a botched counter-terrorist strike

Secret Reunion (의형제) – ★★★★☆

Secret Reunion (의형제)

Secret Reunion (의형제)

The representation of an unspoken bond between the people of North and South Korea has widely existed in contemporary Korean cinema, emphasising the lack of difference between the two and the futility of fighting on ideological grounds. Arguably originating in Kang Je-gyu‘s Shiri (1999), which introduced a softer stance on communism and featuring common ground and relationships, the film was followed by other high profile additions including JSA (2000) and Welcome to Dongmakol (2005), and even television dramas such as Iris (2009).

Director Jang Hoon’s (장훈) second feature, and his first since breaking away from mentor Kim Ki-duk, addresses the concept in a different manner. Secret Reunion (의형제) – also known as ‘Brothers’ and ‘Blood Brothers’ – rejects the oft-utilised theme of war in exploring the notion of Korean brotherhood and instead focuses on more domestic notions of family and kinship. The result is a highly compelling and engaging thriller featuring great direction and wonderful performances, making Secret Reunion one of the best examples of the concept in recent years.

Lee Han-gyoo (Song Kang-ho (송강호) is the team leader of a specialist task force within the National Intelligence Service (NIS). His mission is to capture or kill the North Korean terrorist known only as ‘Shadow’ (Jeon Gook-hwan (전국환), yet the extremist is incredibly elusive. Working on a tip-off, Han-gyoo prepares his team for Shadow’s next strike against a North Korean defector, refusing to call in back-up in a bid to receive credit. Yet unbeknownst to Han-gyoo, Shadow employs the help of young and talented protege Song Ji-won (Kang Dong-won (강동원) for the execution. As the NIS move in to capture Shadow the mission goes horribly awry resulting in the deaths of several officers, with Shadow and Ji-won escaping incarceration. Several years later Han-gyoo, dismissed from the NIS for his conduct, coincidently meets Ji-won at a mining plant. Considered a traitor by the North, Ji-won has also been deserted. In a bid to redeem themselves, the men form a business partnership in order to steal information from each other and regain their honour.

Han-gyoo briefly meets Ji-won during a botched counter-terrorist strike

Han-gyoo briefly meets Ji-won during a botched counter-terrorist strike

Secret Reunion was the second highest grossing film of 2010 and it’s clear to see why. The script by Jang Min-seok (장민석) is highly character driven, featuring both central protagonists as flawed human beings striving to better themselves and define their existences. The writer skillfully combines an array of genre motifs from espionage-orientated action to domestic comedy whilst never feeling contrived, and as such the relationship that develops between Han-gyoo and Ji-won is organic and engaging. Director Jang Hoon capitalises on such a solid foundation with highly impressive visual flair, combining fast-paced adrenaline-fueled camera movement during action sequences, wonderful cinematography, and a keen sense of comedy. Both the script and direction consistently represent Han-gyoo and Ji-won as men with similar ideals, with ideological differences that do arise more generational than cultural.

The character development and relationship between Ji-won and Han-gyoo is where Secret Reunion shines. Han-gyoo’s arrogant and ambitious traits as an NIS agent are similar to Ji-won’s single-minded determination in assassinating a defector; yet when both protagonists are stripped of their roles they find common ground through notions of family and compassion. Divorced Han-gyoo psychologically and financially copes with the departure of his family by locating and reunifying runaway foreign wives with their Korean husbands, despite the brutality with which they were treated. While such a narrative thread conveys Han-gyoo’s torment over losing his family, it also explores an increasing problem in Korean society as men from the countryside marry – often through brokers – Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino and women from other developing countries, often abusing them upon arrival. As such, Secret Reunion conveys that focusing on older concerns of North/South relations overshadows more pressing current social and humanitarian issues, also expressed through the old age of Northern terrorist Shadow in comparison to the young women forced to flee. Ji-won exemplifies such a stance as his communist ideology is portrayed not so much as archaic nationalistic fervour but as equal rights for all, coping with the loss of his family by respecting the women he tracks down as he would his own wife.

Ji-won and Han-gyoo accidently meet several years later

Ji-won and Han-gyoo accidently meet several years later

In their roles as Han-gyoo and Ji-won, actors Song Kang-ho and Kang Dong-won prove why they are among the top talent in the industry. Both perform their roles highly convincingly and are compelling throughout. The range of genres within Secret Reunion also allows the actors to stretch their performances in different territories, from the tense action sequences to their comedic living arrangements, from sharing personal history to violent confrontations. The chemistry between them is a joy to watch, with the generational difference between them also conveying a ‘passing-of-the-torch’ of sorts from one talent to the other.

If there is criticism to be bestowed upon the film, it would be that there are not enough scenes that heighten the tension between them and dramatic moments in which personal history is expressed. The co-habitation between Han-gyoo and Ji-won is wonderfully comedic and conveys their brotherly similarities, yet opportunities are missed in which tension and paranoia could be embellished, as well as subtle mannerisms or anecdotes conveying the character’s philosophy and experiences to unite them closer. As such their business and living arrangements are enjoyable yet lose the immediacy of scenes prior.

In order to steal secrets, Han-gyoo and Ji-won co-habit

In order to steal secrets, Han-gyoo and Ji-won co-habit

Verdict:

Secret Reunion is an engaging and compelling film about the unspoken kinship between people of North and South Korea. With the highly competent script by Jang Min-seok, wonderful cast and the visual flair of director Jang Hoon, the film features an array of genres including suspense-filled action and comedic domestic sequences, as well as providing interesting social discourses regarding the abuse suffered by foreign wives. While additional scenes expressing further depth to the relationship between Han-gyoo and Ji-won would have been welcomed, Secret Reunion is incredibly enjoyable and adds a unique perspective on the bond shared between the people of the divided peninsula.

★★★★☆

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Searching for the killer leads all the detectives into a moral vacuum

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억) – ★★★★★

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억)

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억)

Truth is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction. Perhaps the cliche is best served when applied to the criminal classes, as events that would seemingly belong in the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or the films of Martin Scorcese are violently brought into ‘the real’, adding an incomparable shock value with the knowledge that criminal empires were actually built, and that victims genuinely suffered. More specifically, the notion of the serial killer has endeared itself amongst fans of the crime genre for the thrilling cat-and-mouse games played by the detective and murderer, but more so in attempting to piece together the depraved psychosis of the unhinged individual before another innocent succumbs to such unbalanced desires.

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억), director Bong Joon-ho’s (봉준호) incredible second film, is based on the true story of Korea’s first known serial killer who raped and murdered ten women between 1986 and 1991 – a case that is still unresolved. Memories of Murder is one of the most successful and prolific films to emerge from Korea and rightfully so, with superb direction from one of the country’s leading auteurs and an exceptional performance from lead actor Song Kang-ho (송강호).

In a small rural town surrounded by farmland, the naked and bound body of a young woman is found in an irrigation tunnel. Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) is called to the scene, but all traces of evidence have been destroyed by the locals. Shortly thereafter, the body of another young woman is found, raped and murdered in the same fashion. With no leads, Doo-man and his aggressive partner Detective Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha (김뢰하) are tasked with finding the culprit, beating and torturing any suspects who visually conform to their idea of a serial killer. Their theories and methods of interrogation are rejected by intellectual Seoulite Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyeong (김상경) who joins the search, but as the three detectives squabble and desperately cling to the loosest of hunches, and with the government too busy quelling the various uprisings throughout the country, the number of murdered young women continues to rise.

Detective Park Doo-man discovers the first victim

Detective Park Doo-man discovers the first victim

There is a tendency with crime-thrillers to reveal the bloodied and mutilated corpses of the victims for shock value, a tendency from which Bong Joon-ho wisely refrains and instead allows the horrifying true story to be at the forefront of the film. His vision in presenting the narrative is enthralling as he simultaneously conveys beauty and the macabre seamlessly – when Detective Park Doo-man visits the broad, expansive golden farmland in the initial establishing shot, mere moments later he is confronted with a corpse in a darkened, claustrophobic tunnel. The interplay between such oppositions, which have marked Bong Joon-ho as an auteur, continually explore the duality of the situation as light conflicts with darkness, the truth struggles against the veneer, and the lines between morality and immorality are blurred. As such, Memories of Murder contains some incredibly dark humour, such as the ramifications in fabricating evidence and the bizarre perversity that is unlocked in certain members of the populace when news of the murders spreads, adding a comedic edge that stops the film from becoming bleak but also conveys the turmoil and frustrations in attempting to catch a serial killer.

In addition to his interest in duality, Bong Joon-ho’s recurrent social exploration is rather blatantly laid bare and few are portrayed positively. The military government is too busy extinguishing public protests to provide resources; the public are too ignorant to understand they are destroying evidence; media outlets compound the situation further; and men are chauvinistic and sexist. By far the most damning indictments are reserved for the police force, as corruption and violence are commonplace. Detectives Park Doo-man and Cho Yong-koo have received very little education and their logic-defying hunches are simultaneously comedic yet disturbing, as Doo-man rehearses confessional speeches with suspects after Yong-koo has tortured them into submission. Both men humiliate the police force and make them a national embarrassment with their actions, as Bong Joon-ho initially portrays them as simpletons in need of a scapegoat. Intellectual detective Seo Tae-yoon fairs much better having received an education and training in Seoul, yet even he succumbs to the moral abyss due to the frustration with his peers and the lack of resources at his disposal. Bong Joon-ho creates a powerfully damning portrait of the era, yet the dark humour and the often unbelievably surreal events that transpire make the protagonists somehow likable as they themselves are attempt to create order within a society in chaos.

The detectives target anyone who fits their idea of a serial killer

The detectives target anyone who fits their idea of a serial killer

Song Kang-ho, as Detective Park Doo-man, is superb and utterly deserving of his Grand Bell Best Actor Award for the role. Park Doo-man is a bullying fraudster, a corrupt tyrant, yet amazingly is a compelling and charismatic protagonist. His rudimentary upbringing and attitude convey him as an underdog who routinely makes mistakes, and as such resorts to fabricating evidence regardless. Yet when his actions bring the police into disrepute, Doo-man’s evolution is incredible as he begins to emulate Detective Seo-Tae-yoon and commit to serious police work, making Memories of Murder as much about his maturation as about finding the serial killer.

Detective Cho Yong-koo is ultimately a proletariat figure with a penchant for violence, and Kim Roi-ha performs the role well. Bong Joon-ho uses the protagonist of Yong-koo to express the base dissatisfaction with the institution, and as such is more akin to a criminal as he abuses suspects, drinks alcohol, fights with locals, and more importantly sexually assaults a girl in a karaoke room – right next to his oblivious fellow officers.

Kim Sang-kyeong also conveys a highly competent performance as pretentious Seoulite Detective Seo Tae-yoon. As his modern style of police work inspires Park Doo-man, the corruption conversely leads to the devolution of Tae-yoon as his frustrations engulf his sense of reason. Yet while Doo-man’s character arc is compelling, Tae-yoon’s is less so due to his reserved and conceited portrayal.

Searching for the killer leads all the detectives down a dark path

Searching for the killer leads all the detectives into a moral vacuum

Verdict:

Memories of Murder is a fantastic example of a crime-thriller that does not rely on gore in producing an enthralling film about serial murders. While artistic license has undoubtedly been applied in certain areas, the fact it is based on a real-life unresolved case provides authenticity and a mixture of genuine fascination and horror that such events could transpire in recent history. As such it justifiably deserves its status as being not only one of the most prolific films to originate from Korea, but also in cementing Bong Joon-ho’s reputation as a respected auteur, making Memories of Murder one of the most noteworthy examples of the genre.

★★★★★

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