Directed by: Bong Joon-ho Written by: Bong and Kelly Masterson
Is it a coincidence that two of the Korean-helmed films to have made it big in North America are about trains?
Perhaps not. Trains are a compelling, global symbol. They are at once a piece of advanced technology, and a portal back to the nineteenth century. They are serious pieces of infrastructure, and the subject of timeless children’s toys.
But the reason why both Snowpiercer auteur Bong Joon-Ho and the creators of Train to Busan seem to have been inspired by trains, is the association between trains and social hierarchy. Trains through the ages have been known to offer first-class compartments for higher paying customers. And unlike planes, which are similarly segregated, trains are broken into discrete cars, meaning their social classes truly exist in connected, yet isolated worlds.
Snowpiercer was a hard film for me to get into. I picked it off the shelf at my local library because, like many, I was entranced by Bong’s Oscar-winning film Parasite. But in the first half of Snowpiercer, the two films feel like distant cousins at best. Whereas Parasite is an intriguing multi-genre piece from the start, Snowpiercer starts as a (seemingly) generic action movie. The lighting is droll, the characters are all covered in dirt, and we spend less time getting to know them than seeing them squabble and fight. The only shade of quirk is Tilda Swinton, who plays a whimsical villain who could come out of Miyazaki film.
In fairness, there are many viewers who would be happy to see a cast led by Chris Evans go through a gritty, dystopian brawl. But from my perspective, the first half of Bong’s film is not so much entertaining, but purposeful. The film’s dark opening stands in contrast to a quirky second half. Curtis Everett’s (Evans) band of revolutionaries (a surprisingly eclectic cast of Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell (from Billy Elliot), Ewan Bremner (from Trainspotting) and John Hurt), break out of their dreary train compartment with the help of a father-daughter pair of hallucinogen-addicted engineers (Song Kang-ho from Parasite and Go Ah-sung). This leads them through a series of visually enticing train compartments: a greenhouse, an aquarium and a candy-colored, propagandistic classroom.
Snowpiercer and Train to Busan both incorporate trains and fantasy into their stories, but they do so in profoundly different ways. Train to Busan is a zombie movie, in which the train itself is a very real piece of technology: the train is not cartoonish, even as its characters are. Snowpiercer’s train, by contrast, is itself a science-fiction vision, one that exists within the greater context of a world that has been frozen over in a desperate human bid to stop climate change.
The difference in what Bong and Train to Busan chose to imagine, connects to the different ways in which the films explore class society. Train to Busan’s protagonist is your typical Hollywood-movie business dad. He wears a suit, exists in the business world, and works too much to maintain a good relationship with his family. But, despite his corporate ambitions, he is still a member of the middle class, and ove the course of the film morally distances himself from both his past conduct, and the reprehensible behavior of a megalomaniac, train CEO.
Bong’s story, by contrast, rejects reducing class warfare to a battle between individuals: an evil boss, and an upper-middle-class every man. While his story does contain a megalomaniac boss (Ed Harris), his heroes are not individuals, but a collective. And that collective comes from the train’s ugly depths, where they lived in crammed, dirty conditions, and are all but deprived of food.
Many of Snowpiercer’s heroes are underdeveloped, but that’s kind of the point. They are heroes not because they grow morally, or make the brave choice to fight zombies. No, they are heroes because they are oppressed and have the right to resist their oppression. For that matter, Bong is unafraid to make his heroes near morally unpalatable at one point. While I won’t directly spoil Curtis Everett’s devastating, late-film monologue, let’s just say it invokes the misadventures that happened aboard a certain Nantucket Whaling ship.
Trains aren’t the only thing Snowpiercer and Train to Busan have in common. The two films have hauntingly similar endings in which young, female characters bravely walk out into mysterious worlds. In both cases, these girls are not the protagonists of their films. But despite this obvious similarity, the difference between the films remains even in these final moments. The emotional arc of Train to Busan is such that its protagonist’s spirit is honored through the persistence of his daughter. In Snowpiercer, by contrast, the girl from the conclusion is a comparatively minor character with limited ties to protagonist Curtis Everett. She is, however, an apt metaphor for the film’s oppressed class: resourceful, and optimistic in the face of suffering, she emblemizes the hope that even in the most dire of situations, the flame of resistance can burn on.
If given a choice between rewatching Train to Busan or Snowpiercer, I’d probably pick the former. The 2013 film is a compelling story, that entertains throughout its runtime. But what Snowpiercer lacks in entertainment value, it makes up for in political astuteness. Even the film’s sideplot about the engineers relying on the the hallucinogenic drug kronole is politically astute. Echoing the perspective of neuroscientist Carl Hart, Namgoong and Yona may appear inept stoners at some moments, but can become lucid and insiteful at the snap of a finger. Their substance “abuse” is a calculated response to their miserable circumstances, but does not suggest they are otherwise weak in body or mind.
Connecting the real world with the magic of cinema can be a real challenge. We have been trained to want to see stories of charismatic, well-define heroes, not trouble masses, messily looking for an escape from their misery. Snowpiercer is full of cinematic magic, but its unique commitment to this afforementioned realism, for better or worse, is its defining feature.