Screening Bong Joon-Ho’s SNOWPIERCER

This is my first blog post discussing a film.  My intention is to organize this post a bit differently from most things you read online that analyze or talk about a film.

I have structured it to start with a brief synopsis of the film, a discussion of its background and/or making, and introduce some important things to pay attention and watch for as you view the film.  This allows you to learn about the movie before seeing it, enriching your viewing experience, without the threat of spoilers.  It’s also the way I try to organize my teaching when screening films.

I then recommend you watch the film (or re-watch) and then read on to my analysis.  I do not know if every one of my film blog entries will take this format, but it’s an experiment to make this more unique and differentiate what we do at Interdigitized.

Synopsis:

Snowpiercer is a film that follows the events of a failed attempt to counteract the effects of global warming, resulting in a worldwide catastrophe that freezes the Earth.  The only survivors reside on train ruled by a class system that spawns a rebellion from those at the back of the train, who seek to redistribute the privilege and wealth that the passengers at the front of the train enjoy.

Background:

The film is a combination of many genres, including action/adventure, science fiction, and thriller.  It bears the attributes of an art house film with its creative presentation while its visual execution maintains the quality and excitement commonly associated with blockbuster Hollywood films.  I think part of the success of Snowpiercer, and its critical acclaim, comes from its ability to blend genres and confound expectations.

This merging of genres and scale not only defines the content of the film, but the process of its creation.  It represents the changing aspects of filmmaking today, where many movies are inspired, funded, and created by people and companies all over the world.  This is a challenge to our ideas of associating films with a particular region or nation.  Snowpiercer is representative of a complicated and intricate view of film called transnational or multinational.

The film is loosely based on a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, published in the early 1980’s.  It was filmed in the Czech Republic, which allowed for enough space when the production required scenes where the train cars needed to appear connected.  The director, Bong Joon-Ho, is known for many successful movies in his native country of South Korea.  Memories of Murder (2003) was based upon the true story of a rural serial killer.  It went on to win many awards and accolades.  He directed The Host (2006), a horror film that broke many South Korean box office records.  His last picture before Snowpiercer was Mother (2009), concerning a mother who helps her disabled son fight a murder charge.  Mother competed at the Cannes Film Festival that year.  Bong has made profitable and critically acclaimed films while creating a unique and personal style.  Snowpiercer is his first English language feature, though it does contain some Korean.  The conglomeration of different cultures in its creation is important to remember as current films are marked by globalization.  This extends to the ways in which films are released in particular countries and markets.

The arrival of Snowpiercer in the U.S. was especially notable for its difficult entrance into theaters that highlighted how distribution patterns are changing and adapting.  The Weinstein Company, famous for distributing many successful films (Quentin Tarantino’s, for instance) acquired the rights to bring Snowpiercer to American audiences in theaters.  The company objected to elements of Snowpiercer and demanded that Bong create a new cut of the film to satisfy their demands.  Bong refused to edit his film.  As a result The Weinstein Company passed off Snowpiercer to one of its subsidiary distribution companies, RADiUS-TWC.  This smaller company had limited resources to put the film in as many theaters as was originally anticipated.  Films strive for a wide theatrical release, putting it in thousands of theaters.  Instead, Snowpiercer opened on a limited number of screens and, after two weeks, went to Video on Demand.  Most releases have a 90-day waiting period before appearing in other formats.  The film made a sizable sum in its offering to customers in their homes as a Video on Demand title, though it was considerable less than the millions a theatrical release can generate.  However, the company saved significantly by not having to run many of the promotions, especially television ads, to attract viewers.  The profitable release in Video on Demand was enough to draw the attention of the film industry and possibly change how films are marketed and released, perhaps changing the accepted release structure of movies.

Viewing:

Snowpiercer, is a film whose themes, like its making, transcends borders and boundaries, combining culture in a fascinating way.  Here are 3 things to consider and pay attention to when watching the film:

1. The film is clearly about inequality and class warfare, but it comments on other social issues. The train is portrayed as the entire world for the the characters. Notice the phrase “whole wide train” being used.  It is described as an “ecosystem” that must maintain its “balance.”  The train also circles the globe and marks time by its passing of certain geographical points.  It is easy to draw parallels to the train representing the Earth, with the cold desolation surrounding it as space.  However, the focus on the dynamics of the train also alludes to our concerns over climate change, political turmoil, and issues of rapidly rising population growth.  One notable way to view the film is also as a commentary on capitalism, the driving engine of the world economy and its effects upon people, their views, and the organization of the world.

2. The film abounds in religious references, to Christianity in particular. The train itself is referred to as an ark in the opening text of the film. Certain characters and the engine are referred to in a theological manner.  Much of the dialogue includes words such as “divine,” “sacred,” “merciful,” “benevolent,” and “miracle.”  Phrases such as “in the beginning” and “so it is” are used.  There are even “red letters” mentioned, suggesting a connection to Bibles that are commonly printed with the words of Jesus appearing in red.  There is a scene involving a fish that appears nonsensical to the plot, but the fish is a common symbol in Christianity.  Also, if you pay close attention, early in the film when our protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans), has a conversation with Gilliam (John Hurt), you can see a crucifix behind Curtis’s back, making a visual connection and furthering the religious themes in the film.

Screening Bong Joon-Ho's SNOWPIERCER - Crucifix 1

Note the crucifix visible in the center right of the frame.

Screening Bong Joon-Ho's SNOWPIERCER - Crucifix 2

Curtis leans in just enough to allow the crucifix to remain visible and connect it to his character.

3. There is a motif of arms and hands apparent throughout the film. Motifs are repeated patterns or elements that give a deeper meaning to the film by tying parts of the movie together to accrue significance in their relation. Some of these arms and hands are tied into the Christian references that I’ve mentioned, intimating Christ’s wounds in the crucifixion with nails through the hands or wrists.  This motif takes on additional meanings of both sacrifice and control throughout the film.

At this point, I’m going to recommend that you watch the film.  If you’ve seen it before, it will probably help to watch it again with these aspects in mind.  My discussion below analyzes what I’ve mentioned above and elaborates on the meanings and implications the film generates.

Analysis:

Snowpiercer no doubt surprised you and confounded your expectations.  In particular, the film deceives us in how important Namgoong and his daughter, Yona, are beyond opening gates and giving prophetic warnings to the insurgency.  Though they appear to be drug addicts, helping the rebellion by being supplied with kronole (notably a word associated with time), they possess a grander perspective than those of the other characters.  Curtis, Wilford, and everyone else on the train, only consider two directions: backwards and forwards.  Namgoong consistently directs Yona to observe the world outside the train.

Screening Bong Joon-Ho's SNOWPIERCER - Namgoong Gate

Namgoong points to escape as the camera swings to reveal another door and change Curtis’s perspective.

This is powerfully communicated visually when Namgoong reveals to Curtis his intention to blow open a side door on the train, as the camera swings around and breaks the linear world it mainly presents to us.  He exposes another way that is not backwards or forwards, and a future that doesn’t involve the train which preoccupies those in the front as well as the back.  Namgoong does emerge from the middle of the train, a section, as I’ll illustrate later, that is represented as having the tools and understanding to make change possible, suggesting the power of the middle class in a train dominated by lower and upper class relations.  It is interesting to consider how Namgoong speaks only Korean and requires a translator to communicate with Curtis.  His ideas are so radical and different to the inhabitants of the train that it is represented as a language barrier.

Curtis is unable to understand Namgoong because he is so driven in his beliefs and in Gilliam.  This is a protagonist who undergoes an incredible journey, not only because he is the only person to have traveled the entire length of the train, as Wilford tells him, but because he is convinced of Namgoong’s unique perspective.  Namgoong’s views take into consideration the world outside the train.  He considers the train in the context of the world and pays attention to the environment, as evidenced by his discerning the melting snow both in the flake that enters the train and the sighting of the plane.  However, his ability to succeed is tied to Curtis’s rebellion that grants him access to the front of the train.  It also hinges on his ability to convert Curtis.

I use the word conversion because Curtis is driven by a spiritual adoration of Gilliam and his cause to establish a more egalitarian rule.  Curtis shares the story of his salvation with Namgoong, who listens respectfully to Curtis share something immensely personal, revealing what has been the source of his devoutness and exposing a sinful and shameful history of cannibalism.  He describes Gilliam’s sacrifice as a “miracle.”  Gilliam is connected to Christ, giving his body, sacrificing himself.  Curtis becomes a faithful follower as a result.  In many ways Curtis is presented as born again.  In a conversation with Yona, Curtis reveals his has been on the train for 17 years.  When Yona asks him what living on Earth was like, emphasizing the interest in thinking beyond the train, Curtis refuses to remember citing he doesn’t want to think about “a time before Gilliam.”

The display of the fish when Curtis and his rebellion arrive at train car in which they fight the masked forces further connects the religious devotion of Curtis in these Christian terms.  The slicing of the fish is supposed to indicate the end of the insurgency and Curtis as well.  Wilford comments that this was where he planned to stop the revolution.  Curtis slipping on the fish foreshadows how this devotion will prove to be based upon false beliefs about Gilliam.

The Fish

The fish that is symbolically sliced open.

Curtis Slipping on the Fish

The fish reappears when Curtis slips on it, foreshadowing how the world will fall out from under him when he learns the truth about Gilliam from Wilford.

In Curtis’s confrontation with Wilford, it becomes clear why Gilliam tells Curtis to “cut out his tongue.”  Curtis learns form Wilford that Gilliam has deceived him, manipulating his undeterred conviction to perpetuate the class system present on the train.  He realizes the front of the train, the alpha, Wilford, and the back of the train, the omega, are connected.  Even the names Gilliam and Wilford are both connected to the name William.  This shatters Curtis and he is faced with the realization that he will never be successful in creating equality on the train as it relies on a delicate system of inequality.  He must make a decision to take Wilford’s place and begin the cycle anew or put his trust in Namgoong’s plan.  It is important here to consider one way to read what the engine symbolizes to further our understanding: capitalism.

Curtis in Engine

Note how Bong visually captures the influence of Wilford. He forces Curtis to continue looking forward in a tracking shot that pushes Curtis even more to the right of the frame.

Curtis and Wilford in Engine

Wilford’s influence has pushed Curtis forward into the engine, emphasized by this tracking shot.

Bong is making use of an argument that some theorists have made with regards to the connection between capitalism and violence, the brutality and relentless of which is one of the most distinctive features of the film.  The connection between violence and capitalism is illustrated by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in his book Violence.  Žižek presents violence as a system with varying levels.  As a society we become preoccupied with one level of violence, the kind that is done by “social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, and fanatical crowds.”  His disciplined repressive apparatuses include governments and the military.  This is all subjective violence.  It is the form that is easiest to see.  The second level of violence is more illusive and invisible, objective violence.  It is systemic, created and perpetuated by capitalism’s reliance on inequality and greed.

Žižek highlights these levels operating in historical examples.  The conquest of Mexico in the 16th century condemns individuals such as Hernan Cortés, a perpetrator of subjective violence, while failing to recognize the role that capitalism’s drive towards globalization to acquire new markets perpetuates.  Similarly, he discusses King Leopold II of Belgium’s exploitation of the people and environment of the Congo in the late 19th century into the early 20th.  By using forced labor tactics and violent repression, he is responsible for the deaths of millions.  While Leopold II is considered in one way to have been a humanitarian, as he gave much to the Belgian people in developing beneficial institutions and programs, it was at an enormously destructive cost.  Žižek cites these as examples where we blame the visible operatives rather than the system that inspired and drove them to profiteering and murder.

Curtis and Wilford Looking Back

Curtis and Wilford look back on the train. It is here we must look beyond these individuals and think about how they are both manipulated by the train and the system that governs it, the need to keep the engine running. Note how they are both framed with the engine looming in the background.

This is the dirty secret under the floorboards that Yona reveals to Curtis.  It allows him to connect the subjective violence, that which causes discontent and exploits the lower class, leading to rebellion and punishing oppression by the upper class, to the objective violence in the cost of the perpetual running of the engine.  He is able to see the issue as a systemic problem and not as the fault of individuals who bend to its will, as all on the train are responsible for the cycle, the front members as well as the back.

Once Curtis understands this, he is able to make his sacrifice count.  Bong uses the many religious references and ties them into the motif of hands, arms, and limbs to illustrate a repeated and ritualized act of sacrifice that all serve only to sustain the engine, never truly challenging the system.  It reflects the blinding belief in the system that preserves security for those in the front while maintaining hope and belief for those in the back for change that will never come.  The violence, a necessary byproduct, never transforms any aspect of the system; it merely changes the players around.  The motif shows the inadvertent reverence people have for the system, giving themselves over to it, while they believe the sacrifice comes for other larger reasons.

This idea of sacrifice and participation in violence is another reason why Namgoong and Yona are so essential to deciphering Snowpiercer.  Violence is something that marks all of the passengers except for Yona.  The connection between violence as capitalism correlates to Namgoong’s teachings to his daughter.  He coaches her to pay attention to the outside world and how life is possible without the train, going through great effort to prevent his daughter from being a victim or participant in the violence that ensues.  She saves lives by inadvertently impaling Franco the Younger, presumably related to Franco the Elder, who then vigilantly pursues Yona.  In the sauna car, Namgoong grabs his daughter’s wrist so she drops the knife she is swinging to kill Franco the Elder, stopping her from willfully participating in the violence that marks participation in the system.

The Francos

Franco the Younger and Franco the Elder. Father and son in order to be a counterpart to Namgoong and Yona?

Snowpiercer, for all its darkness and dichotomy, does suggest the potential for change that emerges from the middle cars, representing the middle class, where Namgoong and Yona reside.  The film links the back and front of the trains through visual means.  They look similar; they are both windowless and feature dark and muted colors.  The people at the front and back of the train are strong believers in the train as the entire world.  Note how all of the characters consider the train as being the entire world.  Both Timmy and Wilford, the lowest and highest members, both verbally echo this sentiment.  The middle section of the train differs and, despite the indoctrination that takes place in the school scene, they see the frozen world and have access to a wider range of vision.  This is expressed not only by the appearance of windows making the world visible, but by the expansive color palette as well.  They have far more perspective than any other members of the train.  Namgoong, being from the middle of the train, doesn’t ignore the same sights or information that the schoolchildren receive, but he uses them to teach Yona far differently.  While they all look at the Frozen Seven, it is not for Namgoong an example of how those outside the train will die, but instead those who tried and had the right idea though they didn’t survive.  They sacrificed themselves for something that didn’t perpetuate the system and suggested another way of living.

It is this idea of true sacrifice and possibility that Namgoong tries to convince Curtis of when they reach the front car.  Yona, by revealing the children who are burdened with being replacements for extinct train parts finally persuades Curtis who then gives his arm (and his match) to spark the true revolution that shuts down the engine and derails the train.

Yona and Timmy are the only survivors of Snowpiercer, a new Adam and Eve, represented by an Asian girl and a black boy contrary to another older white leader, such as Wilford, Gilliam, or even Curtis.  Though race is not a prominent issue in the film, Snowpiercer is primarily based in class struggles, this suggests the radical overhaul of rule and power in those who will live beyond the system.

Walking Away from the Train

The survivors walking away from the train. Note how they move towards the camera.

The final shots of the polar bear communicate many things to us.  The appearance of the polar bear tells us that there may be other survivors who did not live on the train.  Being a predator, there must be other animal life that exists or learned to adapt.  It signals that survival is possible, though it may be dangerous to venture out into the unknown, to see what is beyond and outside of the system.

Bong has created a visual stunning and politically intriguing piece of cinema with Snowpiercer.  The film is a rich examination of many societal issues on the microcosm of the world that the train represents.  While I ascribe to reading the engine as that of capitalism, which necessitates inequality in order to run, the engine and train can be read in the context of other concerns.  The film is brimming with observations on exploitation, drug abuse, ecology, population, violence, class, education, and religion.  This analysis is by no means comprehensive enough to completely tackle such a dense film, but merely offers one way to comb through some of the meanings and implications of Snowpiercer.

 

For some further reading on Bong Joon-Ho’s work prior to Snowpiercer, check out this discussion.  It features a good analysis of his cinematic craft.

For a wonderful visual essay dissecting the left and right linear world of Snowpiercer, watch this from Every Frame a Painting.

For an engrossing interview with Ondrej Nekvasil, the production designer of Snowpiercer, click here.  The interview is accompanied by some beautiful images of the concept art used to help create the diverse train cars.

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