Memories of Murder. I didn't care for the movie myself, but it earned him the prestige needed to make his first English language film. And the movie that resulted did catch my interest.
Snowpiercer presents a dystopian sci-fi future concept that's part Hunger Games, part Cube. In a near future where efforts to counteract climate change resulted in a global ice age, nearly all life on Earth has been wiped out. The few human survivors have been stuffed into a bullet train -- the Snowpiercer -- that cruises endlessly around the planet like a Noah's ark. A very class-delineated Noah's ark. The wealthy luxuriate in cars near the front of the train, while the destitute subsist on food stuffs in the back-of-train squalor. One man now leads a revolt among the poor, fighting to reach the front of the train and the mysterious overlord in the engine.
The film boasts an interesting cast. Chris Evans stars as Curtis Everett, the leader of the revolt. Most of the film seems to be trading on the inspiring reputation he carries with him from playing Captain America. But there are also some later turns in the storyline that allow him to play much deeper and darker material. John Hurt is featured prominently as Gilliam, the aging patriarch of the back-of-train gang, and mentor to Curtis. Hurt's performance is full of subtle nuance that provides a nice contrast to the aggressive plot.
Not yet impressed? How about adding a couple of Oscar winners to the mix? Tilda Swinton undergoes another transformation to play Mason, a bureaucratic oppressor in the train's hierarchy. Her wild appearance and demeanor could have been laughable, but somehow feels dangerously serious in the oppressive world of the film. And Octavia Spencer plays a sympathetic mother spurred by the abduction of her son to join the revolt. The cast has a multinational element as well, with Korean, British, Romanian, and Icelandic character actors joining other faces recognizable to an American audience. (For example, there's Alison Pill of The Newsroom, and another well-known actor whose later appearance in the film is best not spoiled.)
Just as important as the movie's casting is its brilliant set design. As the insurrectionists make their way further forward in the train, the sights and settings grow ever stranger and more fantastic. The movie depicts places running the gamut from slum to factory to restaurant to salon, with countless more in between that (again) are best not spoiled. The movie presents a visual feast, but also a context for the feast that makes sense.
That said, Snowpiercer's message against classism isn't exactly new ground in film, or even in the sci-fi genre. And the deeper thoughts it has to offer materialize a bit too late in the film to truly haunt the proceedings. It's a good movie to be sure, but I think falls a bit short of being a truly great one. Still, its head and heart are in the right place. It squeezes all the juice from its premise, and manages to deliver good action as well. Added up, I'd give it a B+. Fans of the dystopian sub-genre will definitely want to check it out, at least later on video if not now in its limited theatrical run.