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Culture

'Snowpiercer' Is the Must See Movie of Summer

Because it's so brilliantly timely. So why won't they show it at your local theatre?

By Dorothy Woodend 22 Jul 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other week. Find her previous Tyee articles here.

It is so rare that something lives up to expectations that it can feel like a goddamn miracle. 

Ladies and gentleman, I give you Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer.

Anyone who has followed the saga of this long-awaited science fiction dystopia knows that the release of the film is a story unto itself. The film was picked up for distribution by the Weinstein boys, who demanded the director cut 20 minutes and add a voice-over narration: Bong Joon-ho told them to take a flying leap and the rest is history. The film opened in extremely limited release across North America in June. In British Columbia's Lower Mainland, populated by 2.3 million people, Snowpiercer is currently playing in a single theatre in Abbotsford.

You also can download it via VOD. But Snowpiercer deserves to be writ large, on the big screen, with a packed audience. It is a film for the people and for the times we are living in. After the latest period of stupid, abysmally horrific violence these past few weeks, one could easily be convinced that humans have got to go. It doesn't take much imagination to think that the world might be better off without us. Indeed, that is the premise of a great many films this year, all busily envisioning the end of humanity, via alien invasion, talking apes, or giant fighting robots from the sky.

The end of the world in Snowpiercer begins with chemtrails. A great many conspiracy theorists in the Kootenays will nod sagely at this, and say "I told you so."

As the film's introduction informs us, in a last ditch effort to stop global warming, the sky was seeded with a chemical agent designed to reverse the effects of climate change. It worked a little too well, and the result was titanic ice age that froze the world solid. The few remaining humans have survived aboard a massive train which circles the globe punching through the frozen landscape like the fist of god.

Don't bother to ponder the logistics of this conceit too long. The film is essentially one enormous allegory from stem to stern, an end of the world fairytale for us naughty children. But like any good story, there is much more than initially meets the eye. Snowpiercer is towering in its attention to detail, specificity and grace. The construction of the train is a marvel of art direction serving narrative flow that moves forward, always relentlessly forward.

But beneath the surface there is something else. Ideas and ideologies aplenty -- take your pick. Class war, capitalist critique, environmental parable, and then, underneath all that, the idea that change can only be achieved with terrible sacrifice, and even that might not be enough.

All aboard

Let's begin with the train itself, given that it is the biggest and most obliterating symbol in the film. No one needs to tell you that Capitalism is the name of the engine that drives this infernal beast. Trains heralded the dawn of the industrial age, therefore it is fitting here that they should attend its sunset as well. The Snowpiercer is the brilliant design of a mysterious billionaire named Wilford, whose magisterial initial is emblazoned throughout. Initially conceived as a luxury vehicle, it has become an enormous moving, weaving version of society, divided by class and wealth. 

The very rich occupy the front cars, catered to and accommodated in compartments encrusted with Rococo ornamentation. Lush is the word. Brocades and wine dark velvets coat the interiors of these sections, like the robber baron mansions of old. The midsection is full of middle class folk, content to simply get along, having hairdos and manicures. The tail is for the poor and the downtrodden, the wretched of the train, the dirty, smelly rabble, muttering and resentful of their status. They are kept down by the constant application of armed threat from the riot police, a helmeted and jackbooted presence, who dole out gelatinous protein bricks and regularly bash anyone who looks at them funny. Seem familiar yet?

Into this highly stratified world, comes a revolutionary named Curtis (played curiously enough by Chris Evans, familiar to most as Captain America). In addition to the rest of the faceless masses, Curtis is helped along by a raggedy troop consisting of a single mother named Tanya (Octavia Spenser, The Help), an elderly radical named Gilliam (John Hurt, 1984), a young firebrand named Edgar (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliott) and, most wonderfully, Song Kang-ho as security expert Namgoong Minsu (The Host).

Forgive me an aside to recount my very first glimpse of Song Kang-ho, hanging over a drainage culvert in Bong Joon-ho's sophomore film Memories of Murder. If you have never seen this film, drop whatever you're doing at the moment, it wasn't that important anyway, and go find this film. Memories is one of those films that upends all expectations. It contains multitudes: farce, tragedy, hilarity, terror and people getting kicked in the chest. I remember being completely floored the first time I saw it, as I never knew what I was going to feel from one moment to the next. Anchoring it all was Song Kang-ho, whose face simply demands to be looked at. Although he is only part of Snowpiercer's serpentine story, he commands attention with a world-weary charisma, and an enviable way with a cigarette.

A level of attention must be paid to the specificity of this casting. There is Evans, playing against type, and there is the worn humanity of John Hurt that immediately recalls earlier characterizations (1984's broken betrayer Winston Smith). Such echoes and palimpsests from other films, other stories, endure, carved into the action, just underneath. They form a narrative undertow that pulls you along (as if you were on a train or something). It may feel occasionally that the director has stacked the deck, as each of these actors who play the downtrodden carry with them traces from these earlier stories. Trust that there is a method and a meaning at work.

Ranged against the poor folk is a Hell's chorus of the violent and the corrupt, anchored by the human marvel that is Tilda Swinton. As Minister Mason, the train's second-in-command, she reads like a mangy magnified version of Maggie Thatcher, full of false teeth, helmet hair and a swirl of mink coat. But there are strange reserves of piteous humanity inside her hollowed out carcass. Add Vlad Ivanov (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), and Dutch actress Emma Levie (as the coolly murderous Claude) and you have the equivalent to a thespian all-star team.

Chugging along

The final character, if you could call it that, is the train itself, a behemoth (1,001 cars in the original graphic novel), sleek as fluted steel and relentless in the pursuit of forward motion. It is a perfect encapsulation of the momentum that has driven us right into disaster for the better part of the last century. To quote good old Howard Zinn, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." So it is here as well.

Revolution has been brewing for some time, as conditions have deteriorated in the caboose. Any act of insurrection is squashed in its infancy, but when soldiers come and take away the smallest children, the people have had enough and the stage is set for violent uprising, or, in this case, horizontal action.

Curtis and his followers are intent on taking the engine, but first they must secure the release of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) who designed all of the doors in the train and is the only person capable of unlocking them. Along with his young daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko), he agrees to help in exchange for a steady supply of his drug of choices, a putty blue substance called Kronol that looks a lot like Play-Doh but possesses incendiary qualities all its own.

A plan is formed, weapons gathered and the insurgency, rallying under the cry, "Take the engine!" set out on their quest. If this were a story helmed by Michael Bay or James Cameron you would know what to expect. Heroes win, villains lose, order is restored. But Bong Joon-ho maintains the ruthlessness of his earlier work, filling the linear story with set pieces that defy conventional narrative rules. Innocent people are murdered, often hacked to pieces with axes. No one is safe. Characters drop one after another, in the service of their cause. Revolution is not pretty. Death, dismemberment and horrible sacrifice must be made in order to secure any lasting change.

As the would-be insurgents scramble forth, making their way from car to car, there is an air of surrealism that recalls the work of Terry Gilliam or the Jeunet Brothers, but it also reminded me, oddly enough, of Willy Wonka, locked inside the enormous chocolate factory with its endless succession of rooms, each full of menace and wonder.

582px version of The Snowpiercer
The train keeps surging forward, but what does it consume?

Even as you are marvelling at the beauty of the sushi bar/aquarium, each car contains some new surprise, like a series of Faberge eggs strung together. In one section, young elites are being trained like Hitler youth, lustily singing anthems to order and the great engine that could. In the next car, club kid ravers in enormous fur coats dance like there is no tomorrow. Still in another, large Russian women take steam baths. Aquariums, greenhouses, discotheques, hair salons, and saunas -- all the usual stuff to keep humans pampered and protected from the elements, which in this case, are considerable.

Certain death awaits just outside the door. An earlier escape attempt from the train resulted in the participants being turned into ice sculptures a few short feet from the tracks.

Destination?

If this were a Wes Anderson film, all of this exquisite detail would be the end point, but Bong Joon-ho has much more on his mind that pretty tableaus composed like Dutch paintings. The story is the thing, and even as the rebels cut and hack their way forward, there is a sense that, like the train itself, something is pulling us towards some terrible conclusion.

There is a reason that the smallest children, after being duly measured for size, are taken away.

The film's penultimate moment doesn't take place with enormous explosions or epic bloodshed, but in a quiet story told as the very last cigarette in the world is smoked. The infernal machinery of the thing must be kept going by devouring humanity, beginning with the youngest. In the innate power of its story, Snowpiercer ranks with other science fiction greats. Here, as in masterpieces such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis or Ursula K. Le Guin's story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, children are at the heart of the story. The relationship between parent and child is an element that occurs in most of Bong Joon-Ho's films (The Host and Mother). Despite all the sound, fury and scale of Snowpiercer, at its heart is something quite humble. Simple even. Just the idea that parents must protect their children, no matter the cost, be it your right arm or your political position.

The final ringing conclusion of the film makes explicit that it doesn't matter how many revolutions rise and fall and rise again. Within this closed system, they are essentially supplanting one thing with a variation of the same. 

As film after film about the end of the world continue to spill forth, it seems all we can think about at the moment is: "Stop the train, I want to get off!" But we're only picking up speed, burning, raping and killing. It is fitting that the central image of the film, the train itself, brings with it its own history of subjugation, violence and sacrifice, a trail of carnage, one body for every mile of CP track laid down, supposedly. If you would like an interesting summation of the role that railroads occupied in the rise of American monopolies have a gander at this.

Time to disembark

We must stop the train. We know it when we shop at the mall -- that the labour of some small child locked in a sweatshop made our cheap chinos. We know it when four little kids are burnt beyond recognition on a beach in Gaza. We know it when a kid is discovered still strapped into his seat belt in the midst of debris field from a downed airplane in a Ukrainian farmer's field. We know it when we deport eight-year-old kids like we were returning damaged goods.

The truth of the train is we have become a world that eats its young.

A society that cannibalizes its children is not one that deserves to continue. To return to Howard Zinn: "If we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory."

One scribe writing about the film quoted Frederick Jameson: "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of Capitalism." The analogy of class struggle is a large part of the film, but unlike more didactic narrative, the story does not close in on itself in an insular enclosed fashion; rather it opens up to the possibility of difference and change.

Even the release of film itself points to the will of the people at work. While a film like Sex Tape, perhaps the stupidest film ever made by humans, is playing everywhere, Snowpiercer gets dumped into a solitary theatre in the exurbs. But despite being buried by the Weinsteins, the film has proven to be a sleeper hit as demand to see it continues to grow.

Sometimes it only takes one spark to start a fire that will burn down the world, and so it is here as well. The film's final scene, perfect and remote and terrible, sums this up without a word. There is another way forward, as two kids take one small step after another into the silence and immensity of a brave new world.  [Tyee]

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