Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Moving from Back to Front in “Snowpiercer”

There was a time, before Parasite, when I had never heard of the Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. But 2019’s Parasite made such an impression on me – and on the film community – that I was eager to know more. Parasite, of course, was the first foreign-language film ever to nab the Oscar for Best Picture, as well as winning honors for its direction and screenplay. The film’s twisty look at the contemporary class struggle, one that swings between comedy and tragedy while encouraging us to continuously shift our sympathies between the story’s two main families, has made me realize that this is a film to be savored more than once, and perhaps viewed differently on each viewing.

 No, I haven’t had the chance to view it again. But recently I watched a Bong Joon-Ho production from 2013, one that I’d seen advertised on theatre marquees in far-flung cities, back in the long-ago days when travel seemed our birthright. Snowpiercer is in fact a film that depends on the idea of travel, but hardly travel for fun or cultural stimulation. The characters in Snowpiercer (based on a French graphic novel) travel ceaselessly because they have to. An ambitious attempt to stem global warming – certainly a hot topic at the moment – has backfired into a global ice-age so severe that no living thing can survive outdoors. Those people who’ve managed to save themselves are crowded aboard a long, powerful train that circumnavigates the earth without stopping. Its inventor and chief engineer, the mysterious Wilford, has become, in the seventeen years since the catastrophe, viewed as humanity’s benefactor and ultimate savior.

 The film’s opening scenes take place in the rear of the train, where an international group of passengers (mostly speaking English) suffer from malnutrition and other woes. Over the course of seventeen years, relationships have formed and babies have been born. But the squalor is intense, helped along by an ad hoc military clique that hands out grim-looking rations while stamping out any signs of plebeian rebellion among the passengers. The scariest figure, Mason, is played by Tilda Swinton, in a wig, false teeth, owl-eyed glasses, and a chest full of medals. She issues commands and threats, while sternly reminding everyone of Wilford’s benign generosity.

 Despite the dangers posed by open insurrection, a number of passengers (Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, and Octavia Spencer among them) are poised to fight their way to the front of the train. That’s when director Bong pulls one of his trademark surprises. The grimy, tightly-packed cars at the rear of Snowpiercer suddenly give way to a kind of fantasyland on wheels: a cozy schoolroom, a swanky beauty salon, an orchard in full bloom, an aquarium full of exotic fish, a sushi bar with all the trimmings. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is discovered by Evans’ character when he’s invited to meet Mr. Wilford in the flesh. At this point the tale becomes something of a philosophical treatise on class structure, one containing some revelations we doubtless didn’t expect.

 This is an ambitious and by no means perfect film, though seeing it on a screen much larger than my home TV set would certainly help. There’s so much going on here that it’s hard to keep track of the many characters and their situations, so that key basic plot points can be elusive. But Bong’s ironic affection for humanity – despite it all -- is very much intact, and the film’s ending, beautifully shot, lingers in the mind. This is a world of fire and ice I won’t soon forget.



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