The one scene in the Korean dystopian film Snowpiercer that I found most chilling although some folks might disagree with me is a scene where a sushi expert calmly with the blinders and focus of one dedicated to his craft creates a sushi roll. It’s a calm scene — one of the few non-action-packed scenes in a film which is pretty much all momentum from start to finish. And while so little is said or done in this mini episode — or train car— the scene (and what it represents) will always stay with me because it sums up so much about what the filmmaker wishes to say about humans, the small and great purposes we give to our lives, and the little niches in society we are glad to belong to. All of which takes place while we are being blind to all else happening in the greater world.
Just as The Matrix was a reflection of the angst of its time, Snowpiercer is a mirror of the early twenty-first century. Except that — to me anyway— The Matrix always seemed to honor and trust humanity against the machinations of the grinding homogenization of the big bad. Snowpiercer is way more cynical about humanity, humanity’s desire for meaning, and humanity’s smug belief in itself.
Snowpiercer is full of images and metaphors. The over-riding one —yes, I know… a bad pun— is, of course, the symbol of a train going on and on in circles, over the same long cyclical track, with no end. And for the most part each of the train’s cars represents a subset or philosophy or aspect of human life. If you like violent films and symbolic scifi, this is the movie for you.
The train is all that is left of humanity in a future time. Yet, like all good scifi, it tells us about our present — in this case, the film shows us our modern-day mechanthromorphic human philosophy. This philosophy can be summed up as: we all are part of a whole, we must all find our place and fit into the whole, we play our mechanical part, get substituted for other parts which have failed or run-down, and —if we do not fit into the great cosmic machine— we are suited only to be tossed away.
Of course a philosophy arises from the fact that the remnant of humanity is housed in a train. And just as many people in our times have a kind of electromorphic spirituality and compare God to a “kind of force” so the human remnants of the future use the train to understand and explain their world. Remnants have to work with all they have.
There is the film as a whole, the film as parts, and the film as the sum of the whole’s parts. The visuals, plots, cinematography, choreography, and plot of this film are all excellent. I’m aiming, though, to not tell you too much about the film because some of you might not have seen it and I really don’t want to spoil it for you.
Let’s just say that this film challenges so many of our dearly-held and deeply-loathed ideas about politics, ourselves, money, hierarchy, talent, and revolution that as the revolutionaries go from car to car the film viewer might praise the filmmaker at one moment (because she thinks the filmmaker is on her side) and in the next moment be insulted.
Let’s begin with the whole environmental issue and the arrogance of science. As often occurs in disaster movies, well-intentioned human scientists who think they know the answer to a particular problem are the cause of the whole trouble. Global warming is everywhere. Scientists get a brilliant idea and — because one of the spiritual motifs of this film is balance, yin and yang, and the idea of past-present-future melding into cyclicality — the scientists totally screw up by creating an equal and opposite disaster: the world suddenly becomes frozen. (I’m not giving away any spoiler here. This messing up of nature occurs in the first fifteen minutes of the film.)
Luckily for the very few, a train has been provided for well…the very few. These are folks who had money, power, hierarchy and status to pay for a place on this train. But, as we all know, human plans often go awry because humans — especially those who trust in their own knowledge— are like sheep without a shepherd: confused, willful, self-confident and heading for a cliff. Yep, the train tracks tend to often ride alongside cliffs.
The fly in the ointment, the great spiritual unforeseen, are the large amount of folks who were not accounted for and who did not fit into the grand scheme of the train’s planners. These folks — who could be equated with illegal migrants— are the train’s great unwashed. They are poor, undifferentiated (by the powers that be), and they just don’t fit.
Well, maybe once in a while they can be made to fit into the plans of the powers-that-be. But for the most part, they live in a state of oppression aiming for the day when revolution arrives. Revolution pretty much means getting to the head of the train. Although. . .well, what one does after one brings down the powers that be is pretty unclear.
The great mass of uninvited, non-paying folks who were graciously “allowed” to escape the cold world and to enter the rich folks’ train all are in the back of the train. They are separated from the front of the train by miles and miles and miles of car. Now I don’t want to get too spoilery so I will only say that a leader rises up from the masses and the revolutionaries slowly attempt to make it to the front where Wolford, the Genius Creator of the Train lives.
Each car has to be breached, of course. The Big Bads are not going to make it easy for the poor to disrupt the spiritual cosmic order of things. And this is where the biggest fun in Snowpiercer comes in because each car is a commentary on some habit, aspect, or philosophy of the modern world. Wolford’ mechanistic philosophy is found throughout. And all beings on the train and all the train cars fit into the general purpose like cogs, tongues, and groove of this train-morphic society. So beginning with the car filled with the collective unwashed, we encounter other cars that show the filmmakers take on our own present world.
There is for instance the military. The military is in the back of the train. They are not as badly off as folks in the back end but neither are they and their individuality important. They are used to keep the lower classes down. This is their deluded purpose, which they do extremely well. Some great fighting scenes there!
Other cars represent other aspects of modern life. There are, for instance, the cars that represent food systems. The food for the poor is pretty bad. I won’t tell you what it is. I will only say that it is pretty much manufactured and that the person who has been trapped into making the food for the masses has gotten used to his production and is really rather proud of his craft and his ability to feed the masses. He has, after all, found his purpose and is now a great cog in the wheel of life. His counterpart is the sushi cook I mentioned before. The sushi maker who made chills run down my spine. The one who is so fixed on the delicate art of creating cuisine for the wealthy front of the train. Yes, that one. Even the pretentions of the foodie world are given a spiritual challenge. Not only because foodies are having delicacies while the rest of the world is poor, but because foodies are so gosh-dang smug in their pretention to “class” and elitism.
Elitism, intellectualism, hedonism — whether nature walks, aquariums, gardens, saunas, dance clubs, leisure drugs — all are shown as pitiful, smug, escapist distractions. No ism is safe.
There is one car for instance with an elementary class teacher who is the embodiment of the conservative nostalgic ideal of purity. But after a while we see that teachers are idealistic tools who are created by the powers that be. The perfect teacher is one who indoctrinates her students with the beliefs of the hierarchy. So education should be distrusted as well. As are media sound bytes. And powerful women are no different than powerful men.
The film pretty much challenges everything we hold dear. Even revolutionaries should be distrusted. The protagonist has the heart of a true revolutionary, but —like Lenin and Castro, he will do anything for the cause. But the Big Bad, Wolford, is just as committed to his ideals as everyone else.
The film shows that mankind will turn anything into a god, and any necessity into a virtue, and will sacrifice anything and anyone for the greater good. Whether it’s narcissism, or addiction to perfecting one’s craft, or even spiritual “enlightened” habits such as meditation, the mechanistic philosophy doesn’t work because it prevents one from looking outside one’s own car. In fact, those who pride themselves on their ability to enter into meditative silence are just disconnected to other people and as deluded as the artistic focused elitist who have the luxury of being special craftsmen. The niche is a great deception. Finding one’s place in the world helps even the artist forget the oppressed. And we all should be very careful of what satisfies us.
It’s a good movie. I know there have been ome folks who dislike the ending but personally I like it. It’s a serious ending because, well…we don’t know if humanity will endure. But it’s also a tongue in cheek ending. Plus I’ve always liked Korea’s obsession with noona romances. And if you don’t know what a noona romance is, I won’t tell you. You’re on the internet; google it.