Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer was surrounded by a huge amount of controversy when arriving in the US. Critics at film festivals and in South Korea praised Snowpiercer as being one of the best science fiction films of the past few years but The Weinstein Company, who was the main distributor of the film in the US, was worried that American audiences weren’t going to understand the film. Harvey Weinstein then wanted to cut a lot of the film and add narration and more action sequences to dumb down the film. This pissed audiences and critics off and as a result Snowpiercer was released in its uncut glory. But Weinstein retaliated by only giving the film a limited release. This is upsetting for me because I feel “Snowpiercer” is the best film of the year.
Snowpiercer is quite literally, a linear story. After humanity launched a chemical into the sky named CW-7 in order to combat global warming, it froze the world causing mass extinction. The last bit of humanity survives on an ark-like train that travels around the world in a circle for a supposed eternity. The train is governed as a hierarchical society. The impoverished members of the train dwell at the tail of the train while the wealthy live at the front of the train. The tail-sectioners of the train are sick of the unfair system of the train and decide to overthrow the train’s god-like creator, Wilford (Ed Harris). The tale-sectioners are led militarily by Curtis (Chris Evans) and spiritually by Gilliam (John Hurt). As the film goes on we see our tail-sectioner companions progress through successive compartments of the train towards their goal.
Snowpiercer can be best described as a live-action flowchart of the world’s class system. Credit to Ondrej Nekvasil for designing an amazing set. It is quite obvious that Snowpiercer is a giant metaphor for the tensions that lie between different classes and how that can create anger and resentment then eventually, revolution. Some critics have criticized the film for being too transparent in this respect but I think the genius in Bong Joon-ho’s art-house science fiction action film is not necessarily in its message, but rather in the artistic techniques the film uses to convey it.
For example, the tale-section understandably doesn’t have any windows. To the tail-sectioners, the train is the entire world. Just like the real world lower class, they are so concerned about survival that they don’t look beyond a linear path of life. But as the film progresses and we see Curtis and his team approach the very front of the train, we realize that the front section is also heavily deprived of windows. The affluent members of the train, just like their poorer counterparts, also view their linear path of life as the entirety of the world. Even the engine room, where Wilford maintains the life giving engine has a claustrophobic feel that the only place to look is the direction the train is going, a linear path. The first time the tail-sectioners see windows and look outside their immediate first reaction is: “all dead” and “stay focused, we didn’t come here for this.” These people can’t look outside their linear path without just seeing death.
Thanks to amazing cinematography from Hong Kyung-pyo, we constantly see Curtis visually making decision by looking left to right while being shot in beautiful profile. Little side note, Bong as a director is famous for his usage of the profile shot as seen in Mother. Left or right is probably one of the oldest tricks in the book for showing character choice. In fact, the film can be viewed as a man trying to push forward (looking to the right) but what gives him humanity is behind him (looking to the left). At the end of the film, Curtis’ final decision to take over the train and complete Wilford’s plan or to stop the train and save a young child is filmed in the same fashion.
Another reason why the tail-section and the front-section are similar is the fact that the color schemes of both places are subdued. The tail-section has a gloomy grey and green color scheme to represent the disgust and filth while the front-section has a kind of tainted white to symbolize the false redemption in Curtis’ rebellion. As the film continues, Curtis’ efforts are actually not portrayed as redemption for his people but rather a violent orchestration of the system and leader he sought to bring down. Many revolutions in the real world are just essential parts of the exploited human class system. Bong understood this and through the film’s visuals wanted to direct our attention to a different section of the train and a different pair of characters, the middle class.
It is the middle section of the train where windows take over much of the space and two characters from the middle section, Namgoong and his daughter Yona, are the only ones who decide to derail the train and escape to a world that all other people view as death. During the film, while Curtis is fighting his away to the front through bloody action sequences, Namgoong is constantly looking outside and teaches his daughter to do the same. Namgoong’s daughter Yona is called a “train baby” because she was born only after boarding the train and that she doesn’t know a world outside of the train. Namgoong tries to educate Yona about the real world and teaches her to avoid getting too involved with the violence that is happening on the train. In one scene, Namgoong shows Yona dirt and explains to her that he used to walk on it.
The most visually rich and important area of the train is the school, signified by Bong’s use of a huge rainbow of colors. The school is where the middle-section children are “educated” about a false world. The middle section members of the train are highly akin to but not a perfect copy of the real world middle class. The middle class is an interesting group of people as they are educated enough to think for themselves and feel comfortable while still being able to be influenced by propaganda. The middle class can be viewed as in a sense the most dangerous class. School is where the middle-sectioners are indoctrinated into a system and turned into the faceless oppressors of the tail-sectioners, under the power of the front-sectioners. At the beginning of the film, Curtis realizes that his oppressor’s tool of oppression is devoid of bullets but when he reaches the school, the teacher’s guns do have bullets. Bong is showing us where the real violence is in a great foreshadowing of the fate of Curtis’ revolution, that the guns are hidden under eggs representing death in false birth. It is during this scene where Namgoong tells Yona to look outside, giving her a proper education. This is what eventually led her to derail the train and escape the train’s linear path. Most of us are like Yona; we were born into a system that we initially perceive of as unchangeable.
A detour from the main subject, when Curtis manages to arrive at the gate of the engine room with Namgoong and Yona, the only survivors of the tail-section, Curtis tells Namgoong a story about how when the tail-sectioners first arrived on the train. The tail-sectioners initially had no food or water; it was just a lot of people crowded inside an iron box. They then turned to cannibalism and ate the weak. But one day, when Curtis was about to kill a little boy and eat him, an old man cut off his own arm and gave it to him and said: “if you’re so hungry, then eat this.” Everybody started to cut off body parts to give to feed the weak. Curtis was the only one who didn’t have the gut to do so. This built guilt inside of Curtis’ soul. At the end of the film, in order to save a little boy, he uses his arm to block the gear in order to get the boy out of the engine. Once he saves the boy, the gear breaks his arm off. Curtis has redeemed himself from his guilt. I found this very touching.
A final little idea that Bong snuck into the film is that the artist is sometimes the best historian, shown through a sketcher from the tale-section who drew all of the events that happened throughout the train’s history.
Snowpiercer is an intelligent, poetic and visually dazzling experience with great emotionally powerful scenes and breathtaking action sequences, while still offering some powerful social commentary. The film boasts amazing production design as well as some beautiful cinematography. I highly recommend Snowpiercer to anyone who loves science fiction, loves social commentary or anybody that just loves film.