Last Friday, my partner Dustin and I decided to get out of our apartment and go to a film in an actual theater. I chose Snowpiercer because we both love Bong Joon Ho’s other films, and so I guessed we might love this one. We went to the theater at Lincoln Center, and before the film began Dustin said to me, “I’m really glad I didn’t know anything about this film before seeing it.”
As a result, I tried to think of what I knew going in as the credits started.
I knew a few things. As I texted to a friend before I went in, “It’s the new Bong Joon Ho, but with him directing white people”. I also knew it was about a train that circles the world, after an apocalypse, and that it houses the last remnant of humanity. Also, that it stars Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and the amazing Kang-ho Song. But that was really it.
The film begins with the story of the apocalypse: an attempt to stave off global warming with a chemical shield seeded into the atmosphere accidentally supercools the Earth, and creates an apocalyptic ice age. We are brought into the aforementioned train, circling the frozen landscape of the planet forever, through the story of a heroically built young white man, Curtis, played by Chris Evans, obviously, who is stoically leading a revolution of some kind from within the ranks of the lowest classes of the train. Tilda Swinton is Mason, the villain, a wild-eyed martinet with false teeth and thick glasses, deputy to the train’s inventor, Wilfred. Kang-ho Song, a truly remarkable actor, and a favorite of mine from such films as Thirst and The Host, plays Namgoong Minsoo, a Korean engineer who designed the doors to the train, and the security, and thus is, quite literally, the key to Curtis’s plot to get the front of the train to deal with the rear. The revolutionaries just have to find him.
When they do, Minsoo turns out to have a price for his participation in the revolt: they must also free Yona, a young girl in the drawer next his,played by Ah-sung Ko, and he wants, for each gate he opens, a chunk of a toxic drug that is a byproduct of the engine powering the train, which seems to function like a cross between meth and opium. A chunk for him and a chunk for her. The revolutionaries are bewildered that this is what it takes–isn’t freedom enough?–but he insists, and they oblige.
Curtis’s gang of upstarts includes John Hurt as a multiple amputee soothsayer, Octavia Spencer as an aggrieved mother, her child stolen from her for mysterious purposes in the film’s first moments, and Jamie Bell, as Curtis’s lieutenant, young, impatient and entirely worshipful of Curtis. Nothing in the film, including our rag tag band of heroes, is quite as it seems–and our sense of who the heroes and the villains are will get considerably revised by the ending. Along the way, we are treated to a visual landscape that is one part Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, one part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and one part, well, any brutally violent Korean film about revenge.
Post-apocalyptic films are by now a kind of pornography, in which the apocalypse leads to some kind of renewal of the world, usually–just not right away. I wonder sometimes if this expectation, built into us by Christian ideas of the End Times, are part of what gives us such an appallingly relaxed attitude toward the end of the world. A kind of “don’t worry, it’ll all work out for the best” idea. It vanishes in the face of a story that literalizes the Rapture, like The Leftovers–we can see that it won’t work out, not for all of us. Maybe not for any of us.
This idea that an elite will be saved by divine intervention or something like it is very much the heart of Snowpiercer. The train, designed to be an entirely self-sufficient environment, is a remarkable invention of its own kind, including the way it pounds through ice and snow across the track and brings the water inside for the occupants. It is also, as most trains are, constructed around social class. As in any train, there is first class, business, and coach. And then the stowaways. Curtis’s group comes from this last–people saved by the beneficent inventor, Wilford, played by Ed Harris–and who are not given any rights during this awful interregnum on the train. A period that at the film’s opening, we discover, has lasted for 17 years.
After, as we left, Dustin was unsatisfied, and I was not, and so I am writing this in a sense to figure out what I think of the film. Dustin has a theory that no matter the weapons or the milieu, in any American big budget drama, the action all comes down to a brutal barfight, and this one proved him right again. Near the end, the film is a knock-down drag-out fight, occurring throughout the train, brutal and bloody, with anything being used as a weapon, as needed.
There was, interestingly, no improbable kung fu, not even from the Korean characters, Namgoong Minsoo, and his beloved, Yona, who dutifully play the role of addled drug addicts who also happen to have the secrets to the train–Minsoo from his work engineering it, and Yona, because she is clairvoyant. They are the real scene stealers, and Yona, as played by Ko, is a particularly a magnetic figure, a clairvoyant waif, born on the train and with no sense of what the world was or could be.
At a certain point, I understood the film was at least two stories–that of Namgoong Minsoo, and that of Curtis–and that in a sense they were rivals, for what would be prevail as the narrative, and who would be the hero. And that this is the reason I think I enjoyed the film, despite the hamminess Dustin complained of–this, and the sense that Bong Joon Ho was intent on taking us all the way around the way the sausage gets made, as it were, in a culture running on one of these myths about elites, apocalypse, and survival.
Without spoiling the film, I can sa then that what we see is the story of a people who are brutally suppressing another class of people in order to justify their sense that their elite status protects them from harm–they do what they do because they believe they have the right to do what they do, and they have the money and force to enact a kind of murderous theater that projects that divine status to society as a whole. These elites don’t question that it isn’t right, or that it could be different, because they desperately need to believe they are special.
I did not know that the film was an adaptation, if substantially altered from the original, of a 1982 French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige. The story it tells us, in any case, is not a story about the future, or 1982–it’s a story that is happening around us right now.