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9 Aug 2013

Review: Snowpiercer – Early this week we went out to see Bong Joon-ho’s new film, Snowpiercer (Seolgungyeolcha in Korean), and I thought I would write a brief review. But first, the bottom line: I enjoyed it, it gave me a lot to think about, and I would recommend it. (By the way, my inability to avoid tangents means that this turned out to be not quite as short as I anticipated, although at least it’s not The Hobbit-length. I am also 99% certain that it is the only review of this film you will ever read that references the Confucian classic Doctrine of the Mean.)

“The story was engaging, the acting was very good, and the visuals were for the most part pleasing.”

The film is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, and this is both a strength and its weakness. It is a strength because good graphic novels offer a lot to films not only in narrative terms but also in stylistic terms. It is a weakness, though, because graphic novels usually have far more complexity than is achievable in a feature film. Even the best films based on graphic novels will feel a little thin in places, and Snowpiercer is no exception. The hyper-compression of the plot is most obvious at the beginning, where we are treated to a montage of events that apparently take place over a reasonably long period of time but only occupy a few minutes of the film’s running time. Obviously a film has to get to the action quickly and not spend too much time on the build-up, but I didn’t really get the feeling that this was something the protagonists had been planning for a long time.

Also a problem in film adaptations of graphic novels is the large cast of characters, and this problem raised its head in Snowpiercer as well. Most of the protagonists were fleshed out well enough, I suppose, but a lot of the antagonists got short shrift. There was one bad guy in particular who appeared halfway through the film, killed a major character, and then basically became the “big baddie” (or at least the “head henchman”) for the rest of the film. But I had no idea who he was or where he came from. I suppose this was not as big a problem as it could be, since the social structure of the film was very clearly delineated and characters fell into one of three distinct groups: lower-class protagonists, upper-class bystanders, and upper-class antagonists. I guess the filmmakers figured that all you really needed to know was to which group a character belonged—and you can’t really say that they were wrong. But it did give the film a slightly disjointed feel in places.

So, what is the film about? In brief: humanity’s solution to global warming is a little too effective and the world ends up in an ice age. All life goes extinct except for a relatively small group of people who are on a train that travels round and round the world, never stopping. As I alluded to above, the class hierarchy on the train is very clearly defined, with the lower classes in the tail section and the upper classes in the front of the train. The film wears its political message on its sleeve: the upper class believes that everyone has their place and that they should stay in their place, which is easy to say when your place is nice and cozy; the lower classes, on the other hand, want to better their station. These rebels are led by Captain America (OK, actually a guy named Curtis who is played by Chris Evans, aka Captain America), whose plan is to free Namgung Minsu, the security specialist who designed all the locks on the doors dividing the compartments, and use him to get to the front of the train and take over the engine, a perpetual motion machine that the front-of-the-train passengers essentially worship as a divine power.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the story, but I will say that it is not as straightforward as it first appears, and the twist at the end reminded me a little bit of the Matrix, although I won’t say why or which part of the Matrix. I will note that the graphic novel predates the final Matrix film, though. And even though the political message is very overt and obvious, I appreciated it and somehow did not find it too overbearing. Or perhaps I appreciated the message because it was so overt. That might not sound like it makes too much sense, but stay with me. Had the film tried to be more subtle and get across its message through, say, satire, I might have found it too clever for its own good. But Snowpiercer is unabashed in its presentation of its message. The train is a physical, spatial representation of the class struggle, with the poor and oppressed in the back and the rich and oppressing at the front. The progression of the oppressed toward freedom is an actual, physical progression through the train. It’s refreshing how simple it is (of course, it’s not really as simple as I’m making it out to be... “straightforward” would be a better word, but there are problems with that as well).

[Addendum, 2013.8.14 – I want to clarify something that I said in the above paragraph, namely this part: “Had the film tried to be more subtle and get across its message through, say, satire, I might have found it too clever for its own good.” At the time, I wasn’t completely satisfied with this explanation. I knew there was a reason why the straightforwardness of the film felt refreshing, but I could not put my finger on it. After giving it some thought and talking with other people about the film, though, I realize that a more subtle attempt at conveying this message would have felt not “too clever for its own good,” but manipulative. After talking with some people who hated the film for its political message (or somehow did not understand what the film was trying to say), I also realize that my positive reaction to the film is due in part to the fact that I agree with the message. It would be easy to see the film simply as “class-warfare agitprop” (as Kevin wondered upon first reading about the film), but I think that would be ignoring the implications of the film. At the risk of getting into spoiler territory (if you don’t want to come anywhere near spoilers for this film, you should probably stop reading now and skip to the next paragraph), I will say that the engine itself, a perpetual motion machine, is a metaphor for the social structure that exists on the train, and the film advocates an escape from this endless loop. I will admit that there are echoes of Marxist philosophy in this, but I also think the film criticizes the naivete of the Marxist revolution and—perhaps somewhat naively itself—looks forward to a hope that exists outside of the closed social structure of the train.]

This is the point where my review goes completely off the rails, because as I watched the film I couldn’t help thinking of a passage from the Confucian classic Doctrine of the Mean. No, I do not usually draw upon the Confucian classics to interpret films; it just so happens that I recently finished a translation of a short story written in classical Chinese, and it contains a reference to a passage in Doctrine of the Mean that I thought long and hard about how to translate. I am not going to include the original Chinese due to encoding issues, but my translation was: “If by nature he is rich and of high status, he acts in accordance with riches and high status, and if by nature he is poor and of low status, he acts in accordance with poverty and low status.” (This does part ways with existing English translations of the passage, but I had to consider how the passage was used in the short story.) This is part of a longer passage that discusses how the “superior man” (junzi) acts in various situations and stations. The moral is that he should act according to his station and not try to be anything more than what he is, which sounds all well and good, and very decent and noble—until you watch Snowpiercer and hear Tilda Swinton (because, I mean, who else could it be, right?) say pretty much that exact same thing... and she’s one of the most despicable antagonists in the film. Not that I was necessarily shocked by this revelation—after all, many problems in Korean society have their roots in Confucian philosophy that has been bent to serve those in power and keep them in power—but it was pretty fascinating to see this idea taken to its worst possible conclusion.

Keeping with the theme of ideology for a moment, while the film does depict a lot of pretty horrible things, it is not actually that gruesome. For example, there is a lot of violence—you may have seen some shots from the ax fight in the trailer—but you don’t really see that much gore. I guess in some ways it is very stylized, as befits an adaptation of a graphic novel. There are other things that are a little stomach-wrenching, but all in all I was doing fine until the rebels started penetrating the heart of the front of the train. That was when things started getting a little creepy. Each of the cars has a different function, with an aquarium car, a garden car, a butcher’s car, etc. The most frightening of all the cars, though, was the classroom car, where little elites were being brainwashed. It all felt very, very... North Korean. It was all clean and bright and pretty and sterile and soul-crushingly horrifying. The children recited slogans after the teacher, sang along with propaganda songs, and very calmly and blithely talked about how passengers in the rear of the train were evil. For whatever I felt watching the rest of the film, I never felt quite as creeped out as when I watched this scene.

Of course, I can’t wrap up this rather disjointed interview without mentioning the interpretation machines. I remember watching the video and seeing Song Kang-ho speak Korean while all of the other characters spoke English, and I wondered how they were going to deal with that. The answer, of course, is technology—there are little headsets that will interpret (in computerized voices) incoming speech into the language of your choice. I don’t have a problem with the technology itself. In fact, I think it is rather realistic, considering this is a future setting and we already have a certain level of translation/interpretation technology in place. It seems perfectly within the realm of possibility that something like this might be developed. And I liked the way the technology was used in the film—that is, when the characters first start speaking, you can hear the interpretation in the background, but as they continue to speak the interpretation fades and then disappears. I thought that was done well. Once you’ve established that the technology exists (and squeezed whatever comedic value you can get from it), you can safely put it aside.

What I thought was a little odd, though, was the way that Curtis’s English was interpreted into Korean. When Curtis first speaks to Minsu, the headset interprets his English into Korean using informal language (banmal). At the end of the film, though, it uses formal language (chondaenmal). This jumped out at me immediately, even though the volume level of the interpretation is very low compared to the rest of the sound—I guess I was just listening closely to this because I found the idea of the technology fascinating. I mentioned this to HJ afterward, and she admitted that she had not noticed. We were trying to figure out why this would be the case. I doubt it’s a mistake—Bong is Korean, after all, and would probably not let something like that slip by, especially when he used the technology earlier for a comedic effect that was aimed at Korean audiences. HJ suggested that perhaps it was meant to signify that Curtis had gained a greater respect for Minsu, but I wasn’t convinced. This is not, after all, how banmal and chondaenmal generally work in Korean—people may go from formal to informal (at least unilaterally) as they get to know each other better, but rarely does this happen the other way around. The only situation in which I could imagine this happening would be if the two characters were openly hostile to each other when they first met, but that’s not the case here. After thinking about it for a while, though, HJ’s explanation is the only one I can think of that makes sense, at least if we assume that this was a deliberate choice. I just thought it was odd. It’s also odd from a purely narrative perspective as well: how does the machine know whether it should be using banmal or chondaenmal? Was there a change in Curtis’ voice or attitude that indicated chondaenmal should be used instead? This is actually a very interesting question, because I’ve heard many Koreans imply that the lack of linguistic distinction between formal and informal language in English means that English speakers are naturally not as polite as Korean speakers. If HJ’s explanation is correct, then it would appear that Bong disagrees with this (patently ridiculous) idea.

I think it’s time to bring this rambling mess to a close. I deliberately did not dwell too much on the story, which probably contributed to the lack of coherence in this review, but I think it’s the sort of thing better seen than read about. Also, in preparation for a rewrite of the paper I presented in London on Korean films, I am reading a film interpretation book these days (which is fascinating), and I’m afraid if I started getting too deeply into things I would get carried away and start tossing out words like “diegetic” and “optical point-of-view.” And nobody wants to see that happen.

Anyway, as I said above, I enjoyed the film and would recommend it. The story was engaging, the acting was very good (Captain America and the Weird Guy both turn in solid performances, and Tilda Swinton is frighteningly excellent, as usual), and the visuals were for the most part pleasing—my only quibble in the visuals department would be with some of the external shots of the train, which were either clunky CG or somewhat poorly integrated practical effects. But we don’t see much of that, so it wasn’t more than a minor distraction for the meat of the film, which... well, maybe we shouldn’t talk too much about the film’s protein sources. I’ll let you discover that for yourselves.

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