Snowpiercer (dir. Boon Joon-ho)

Posted: December 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

“Snowpiercer” isn’t a perfect film, but it is a brilliant film nonetheless.  The entire film plays as an allegory for, well, I was about to say modern day America.  However, since the director, Boon Joon-ho, is South Korean, perhaps it is an allegory for the entire world.  This is a scathing, depressing, misanthropic film attacking our world in the mostly cynically Marxist way I have seen in a very long time.  It’s one of the year’s best films.

I am guessing many of my readers may not have heard of this film.  Once again, the man to blame is Harvey Weinstein, who has never failed to fail when it comes to having a great film on the shelf which could be a huge hit.  Weinstein wanted Joon-ho to cut this film by 20 minutes and to tack on a prologue and an epilogue, for fear that stupid American audiences wouldn’t understand the film and would get bored by the non-action parts of it.  Joon-ho refused to cut and alter his film, so a film that was originally going to get a ride release was dumped to the Video OnDemand pile out of spite.  There was enough fan uproar, and good buzz from other countries where the film played well, to forced Weinstein to give the film a very small theatrical release, but in the end this film was deprived of the audience it deserved.  It was released in July and only now was I able to get around to seeing it.

The premise, taken from the French comic book upon which the film is based, is quite creative.  With Global Warming threatening life on Earth, scientists release a chemical into the atmosphere to cool the planet’s temperature.  This chemical ends up working too well, and the Earth becomes so cold that it can no longer sustain any life.  The only people left alive live on very big train, which navigates tracks that circle the entire planet and takes one year to complete a rotation.  This train was built by a wealthy industrialist named Wilford (Ed Harris), and there are shades of “Bioshock” here, what with this closed-in ecosystem of Capitalism that runs on a cult of personality toward its founder.  Wilford occupies the front of the train, where the engine is.  Joon-ho has already come out and explicitly said that the engine represents Capital in this film.  When you find out what keeps the engine running at the end, well, you’ll see the metaphor driven home solidly.

The tail section of the train is occupied with the perpetually dirty poor peoples who didn’t pay for tickets on the train, but were allowed onto this ark of sorts all because of Wilford’s “generosity”.  With bunk beds atop bunk beds, the look of the tail section is that of a very narrow slum.  Occupants eat only black, oily “protein bars” for sustenance.  Their leader, Curtis (Chris Evans) plots a revolution with his mentor, the one-armed and one-legged Gilliam (John Hurt), and a young protégé of sorts Edgar (Jaime Bell).  There have been at least 2 failed insurrections before, but Curtis has been getting hidden, one-word messages sent to him in his protein bars, and he thinks he has an inside man helping him.  He also believes that, with resources on the train being finite, the guards no longer have bullets after firing them off in the last insurrection attempt.  His plan is to get to the prison section, free the man who designed the train’s security system (Song Kang-ho, whose dialogue is entirely in Korean), an addict whose drug is a flammable industrial waste nugget, and make his way to the front of the train. Namgoong Minsu, the security man, also has a daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung), who is also an addict but has the added benefit of being slightly psychic, often knowing what is behind the door to each subsequent cabin before her dad opens it.

It should be clear to anyone watching the film that this is all a metaphor for Capitalism and Class Warfare.  The train represents Earth (Wilford makes this connection explicit in dialogue for the slower members of the audience), which we sometimes like to forget has finite resources.  As our impoverished heroes battle their way up the train, and talk about how past revolutions failed because they didn’t go far enough to capture the engine (Capital), it’s hard to ignore that their horizontal battle across the train is akin to any proletarian uprising, which we normally picture as a vertical hierarchy which needs to be climbed up.  We watch as the slum tail section becomes the jail section, then gradually to sections like water purification, a greenhouse, an aquarium that serves sushi, a sauna and beauty parlor, rich people’s private cabins, and even an elementary school.  The crazy zeal behind the teacher’s eyes, played wonderfully by Alison Pill, as she dispenses propaganda, is the funniest and most chilling thing in the whole film.

My only complaint with how the train is structured is with the weird fetish nightclub at the front of the train right before the engine, and the drug addict flophouse attached to it.  One wonders how and why the richest of the rich on this train devolved into ravers.  I get the drugs, but the choice to make them angel-wing wearing fetish dancers seems a bridge too far.  And who brought angel wings onto the train in the first place?  The fact that this didn’t happen to all of the rich on the train, as we see more identifiably affluent passengers earlier as they dine and get their hair done, is not given a sufficient explanation and is the one main drawback, for me, of the film.

I haven’t even mentioned Tilda Swinton who, until we meet Wilford at the very end, is our main antagonist.  Behind giant vintage glasses and bad teeth, she becomes an unrecognizable Margaret Thatcher-meets-Gaddafi schoolmarm named Mason.  Delivering some wonderful speeches about how the poor are a shoe and shouldn’t try to be a hat, Mason is one of the oiliest, ickiest, wonderfully horrible villains I have seen in some time.  Despite how over-the-top she sometimes seems, she is oddly reserved for a villain.  She doesn’t behave in any over-the-top villainous ways.  All of her actions are believable and something a person in her position would do.

So does the film advocate Class Warfare as a solution to our modern day issues with Capitalism?  Sort of.  The film appears to argue that many insurrections do little more than to solidify the status quo, even if there is a change of the guard.  The system wins out even if the individual villains do not.  The solution, the film seems to say, is not to change the system or win within the system, but to smash to system entirely and create something new.  In that sense, this is no mere Socialist Revolution.  The film wants to smash the Capitalism system entirely.  This may the first full on Communist film I have seen, produced for a largely Western audience (80%+ of the dialogue is in English, with some other dialogue in Korean and French, respectively).  We’re told later in the film that Wilford would have settled for letting the tail section capture a few extra cars and have more space.  This brings to mind capitulations that Capitalism makes all the time in the face of proletarian anger: a minimum wage hike every few years, laws against child labor, overtime pay, etc.  No matter what capitulations are made, though, Capitalism as a system remains secure, and most people remain in the class in which they were born in to.  In “Snowpiercer”, no passenger has an opportunity to work hard and buy their way into a better cabin.  That illusion, of hard work equally upward mobility, is not an illusion for the passengers on the train.  Perhaps that is why they are so willing to revolt, while millions of poor Americans work shit jobs, vote for moderate Democrats and conservative Republicans, play the lottery, and think that one day they’ll be rewarded through either work or luck.  The truth is that most won’t, because we’re all on this damn train, and it won’t stop unless we try to stop it instead of settling for a few more cars. A-


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