Revolutionary Motion: Snowpiercer
Note: This article contains every possible spoiler. Consider yourself warned.
Snowpiercer is as international as film productions get. Adapted from a French graphic novel; directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (The Host); written by Bong and American writer Kelly Masterson; produced by a Korean company; filmed in the Czech Republic and Austria; starring Captain American himself (Chris Evans), English actors John Hurt and Tilda Swinton, and Korean star Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder); with dialogue in English and Korean.
But in this era of transnational media conglomerates, and the Americo-homogenization of entertainment, this is nothing new. What makes this film truly global is its delineation of an American-led capitalist system of hegemony and class exploitation. Talk about a teaser. More on that later.
Snowpiercer is roughly in the vein of some of Bong Joon-ho’s previous work, like The Host and Memories of Murder, action thrillers with political over- and under-tones, steeped in familiar genre modes — monster movie and police procedural, respectively. Snowpiercer takes place in 2031, 17 years after an attempt to counteract global warming caused the whole world to freeze over, killing everyone except those aboard the titular train, a self-enclosed, self-sustaining perpetual motion machine that winds its way around the entire Earth precisely once per year.
The train, we’re told continually throughout the movie, is humanity, and it is an utterly transparent and unabashed allegory for the real world. Society on the train is a highly stratified class system, with the wealthiest living in luxury at the front — led by the train’s inventor and dictator, the mysterious Wilford, who operates the “sacred engine” — and the poorest at the back. Curtis (Chris Evans), our hero, resides in the tail section of the train, a properly squalid and gray environment, made up of a ragtag group of hangers-on and stowaways living literally on top of each other in ramshackle three-story bunk beds. These unfortunates are ruled over by Wilford’s armed henchmen and Minister Mason — a be-dentured and giddily vile Tilda Swinton — who venture to the tail everyday to take a headcount, distribute protein blocks (black gelatinous brick s of dubious nutritional value), and occasionally snatch children away for some unknown purpose.
The system of oppression on the train is overt; the tail-sectioners are continually reminded of their position in society, and made to feel grateful for it. “Passengers: eternal order flows from the sacred engine,” Minister Mason proclaims to the tail section. “We must occupy our pre-ordained position. I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. Keep your place.” At the beginning of the film, Curtis is in the midst of planning a proletarian insurrection to seize the engine, and thus control of the world, from Wilford. Enlisting the help of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) — an imprisoned drug addict who designed the train’s security system — and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung), Curtis and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) lead their people in a long and bloody battle to the front of the train.
One of the film’s greatest pleasures is the way it reveals itself as it goes along. At the outset, we only have a very rough sketch of what the train is, who’s on it, and what the nature of the society is. As the film progresses, this picture is developed piece by piece to reveal the history of the train — including previous failed uprisings and the characters’ pasts — and the mechanisms, physical and political, that control it. Though sometimes forced — as when the revolutionaries linger in a classroom long enough to hear a history lesson about the train and its founder — this gradual exposition not only constructs an increasingly detailed narrative and emotional landscape, but positions the viewer as an active participant in the film’s story.
Indeed, this sense of development extends to every aspect of the film. In the tail of the train, it’s all browns and grays, dusty rags, dirty unshaven faces, and metallic windowless gloom; the images are as claustrophobic and crowded as the living quarters. As the insurgents strive forward, the images open up; there are windows looking out onto the vastness of the bright snowy landscape, and the carriages are less cramped. The violence, too, escalates, from fists to blades to guns, and with it the characters’ sense of terror and urgency. The film becomes more stylized, too, as the tension mounts, with an extensive (some might say excessive) use of slow motion and unconventional point-of-view shots.
And as they progress farther forward than any revolution before them, they also see parts of the world that had remained hidden to them, and us, until now. The bizarre opulence of the front cars, populated with ever more wacky and eccentric scenes and residents, contrasts sharply with the drab tail-sectioners. The textures and colors of the train are totally alien, and the bizarre surrealism is unsettling. As they pass through aquariums, greenhouses, and plush, oak-paneled rooms, the level of luxury is surprising even to the viewers: “Oh dang,” you marvel, “they’re eating oranges and sushi up there?”
Snowpiercer is a stylish and compact film that offers a welcome contrast to the Hollywood fare it resembles. But it’s relationship to allegory is much more problematic.
As allegory, this is, on the one hand, pretty ham-fisted stuff. In the now-ubiquitous rhetorical shorthand, those in the back of the train are the 99%, and those in the front are the 1%; I’m not sure the numbers add up in this case, but that’s the idea. The train (which, we’re told over and over is humanity) is a repressive and strictly hierarchized system, dividing the rich from the poor through propaganda and, when necessary, violence. Just like our world.
Granted, this makes a more sophisticated and directly political point than most films you’ll likely see at the theater; but it lacks the subtlety and complexity of its real-world counterpart. In depicting such in-your-face oppression, the film misses the most pernicious aspect of the inequality of our society; namely, that structural inequality is masked by the liberal, humanitarian rhetoric of personal choice and the power of the individual to overcome his or her situation. In our world, extreme wealth and extreme poverty coexist, and we are all indoctrinated to believe that we can ascend to the heights of prosperity, even if a majority of us will never have access to the institutions and systems that privilege only a certain few.
Of course, an advantage of allegory is its ability to synthesize complicated ideas into simple ones. But there’s a fine line between simplification and oversimplification, and Snowpiercer straddles it just so.
However, like the gradual revealing of the history of the train, the increasing stylization, the expanding textures and colors of the film, the nuance of the allegory is uncovered detail by detail as Curtis struggles forward. It’s only when the whole picture is revealed that the brilliance of Snowpiercer coalesces.
Globalization is a major theme of the movie. As each successive car is revealed, we see that the culture of the train, though apparently international, is utterly homogenized. Despite its seeming internationality, everything — sushi, saunas, western-style education and medicine, a euro nightclub — is part of a uniform consumer culture in which everyone participates in the same way.
But Bong goes further. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said, “Globalization is not homogenization; on the contrary, it is the extension of the hold of a small number of dominant nations over the whole set of national financial markets.” As we get closer to the engine, it’s this idea that becomes clear. Wilford is a faceless (until the very end), American corporate power who rules over the train; and his rule over the higher castes is as total as his more overt rule over the lower caste. While he uses violence to keep those in the tail in their place, those in the front are kept in line through consumerist placation. The luxury they live in, aided by the illusion of freedom to enjoy sushi and dentistry, hides the fact that they too are ruled by the same forces. While their position is certainly more desirable than the desolation of the rear, they are just as surely kept in their place.
As he realizes this, Curtis is forced to question what his revolution means. What will happen if he takes over the train? At the beginning of the film, his purpose could not be more noble and heroic. He and his fellow tail-sectioners will fight back against inequality to create a more just society for all. But what elevates Snowpiercer is its implosion of itself, its self-destruction of its established characters and ideas, as it goes along. When Curtis finally gets to the front, it’s no longer clear, to him or to us, what effect taking over the train will have. Can a new, more benevolent leader, still functioning within the same system, really do anything to change that system? Or is it necessary to break away from that system entirely? And is Curtis’s revolution really a revolution, or merely an expression of his freedom to choose within this society, the same way the passengers at the front choose between the nightclub or the sauna?
This is Bong’s first English-language film, a fact that becomes significant when you consider that it was not intended as an American release. The film debuted in South Korea last year, and was only distributed in the United States after a long battle between Bong and the film’s American distributor, the Weinstein Company. In other words, making the film in English was not a practical or economic choice, but an artistic one. Watching Snowpiercer, it’s interesting to consider, for example, how a Korean’s interpretation of the film could be different from an American’s. Perhaps the hero would not be Curtis — an American essentially involved in infighting with another American — but Nam — the marginalized non-American who is trying to find a way out of the system.
Bong has been openly critical of the global capitalist system, both in previous films (in The Host, an American military officer orders formaldehyde to be dumped into the river, which creates the monster) and in interviews. Just as global capitalism is dominated by Americans, so is this movie. Wilford, the villain, is an American, and Curtis, the apparent hero, is also an American. Whether or not he means to, Bong is clearly making a point about the futility of those within a system fighting against that system. In this light, the last-minute character shift of Nam, the only major character who never speaks a line in English, takes on even greater significance.
Frederic Jameson wrote, “It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism” (Jameson, The Seeds of Time). This principle is neatly delineated in Snowpiercer: even while the Earth, and with it most of humanity, has been destroyed, the system which ruled it persists. This is the reason for the film’s intense violence; Bong’s point is that the end of capitalism would not be possible without considerable violence on both sides. We see this also in the anti-capitalist films of the Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein, who also depicted scenes of violent upheaval and brutal repression in Battleship Potemkin and Strike (both 1925). The end of capitalism, it seems, would be tantamount to the end of the world. Thus, it is not on Curtis and his revolution that the film revolves, nor on Wilford and his dictatorial regime, but on Nam, and his vision of the train’s destruction. Because, in Snowpiercer as in the real world, it is not reform or new leadership that will bring about change, but destruction of the existing power structures.
Snowpiercer is full of constantly shifting notions and ideas. It’s a film that continually questions and redefines its characters, metaphors, and visuals, and asks you to participate in that redefinition. It is brutal, beautiful, and full of contradictions; it is humanity. And while its not a humanity that I, or Bong, or the characters, want to live in, it offers, in its final moment, an appealing alternative. And, in its final twist, Snowpiercer answers a question asked by H. Bruce Franklin: what could we create if we “were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?”
//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.