When I saw the trailer for Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, I thought the premise of class warfare on a train was too schematic, obvious, and implausible, but after having enjoyed the movie twice, I found that the film's compressed treatment of the psychology of the oppressed and the oppressor rings true. Ideologically, and in terms of film technique, the movie is fascinating. Who is Bong Joon-ho? Why does he make so many allusions to films such as The Fifth Element, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Truman Show, and others? There is so much to cinematically savor--the parallels with Nazis transporting people in railway cars, the color juxtapositions in the set design, the dramatic contrast between the largely dead future world (which in other movies such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road tend to be drearily slow) and the speeding train, the dynamics of the racial diversity in the international cast, the use of space to show class divisions. Underlying all of this is the main emphasis on power and leadership, how the rich enjoy their position in part by ignoring the sufferings of the poor, and how the poor resist becoming commodities to be devoured.
The film begins with the news that in an attempt to engineer a solution to global warming by releasing a chemical "CW-7" into the air, scientists have ironically ended up plunging the planet into a new ice age. The only human survivors ride a train that perpetually circles the globe. While the poor in the tail of the train suffer every kind of privation--layers of grime, hunger, the harvesting of their children, etc., the rich lead much more pleasant if surreal lives in ways that suggest an updating of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) or the more recent Titanic. As Curtis, Chris Evans depicts a man reluctant to lead, and he's surrounded by recognizable types--the fiery younger sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), the wise man (John Hurt) who evokes a similar role in Midnight Express (1978), and Tanya (Octavia Spencer) a mom militantly outraged by the loss of her young boy. Tilda Swinton plays a grotesque clownishly vicious functionary named Mason with fake teeth and gangly glasses. She gives speeches where she encourages the lower classes to "Know your place! Accept your place! Be a shoe!" as one of her minions, as an example to others, publicly tortures someone who openly revolted against the system. She also castigates the rebels for having the "misplaced optimism of the doomed."
After figuring out a way to get out of the first railway car, Curtis opens a morgue-like drawer to uncover a delightfully sulky and drug-addicted expert in unlocking train car doors (Kang-ho Song) and his 17 year old daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) who turns out to be clairvoyant like the character River Tam in Serenity (2005) (with Snowpiercer, one can tease out the implications of these pop culture associations all day). As the rebel crew works its way forward in the train, each new door has surprises behind it. When the rebels find one train car filled with brutish enforcers with face masks and axes clearly placed there to kill them, Joon-ho leisurely lingers on the thugs as they ritualistically anoint their axes with the blood of a large fish. This scene becomes a discourse on extreme lighting changes, slow-motion action, and soft piano music highlighted with blood. Afterwards, the rebels incongruously find themselves in a brightly colored school for kids who are all well-indoctrinated by the dictatorship of the train to answer questions in unison. When the teacher asks what will happen if they leave the train, the kids gleefully cry out in unison "We all freeze and die!" Bong Joon-ho's pleasure in his craft keeps enhancing his dystopian vision with wit, insight, and visual flair.
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