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Bong Joon-ho’s "Snowpiercer"

Engines of Destruction

by KIM NICOLINI

Snowpiercer is Korean Director Bong Joon-ho’s latest entry into absurd, hallucinatory, and politically polluted dystopian filmmaking. Loosely based on a graphic novel of the same title, the film is about a train that houses the last human survivors in a world in which all life has been frozen to extinction in an attempt to stop global warming. It is like a Noah’s Ark narrative for an apocalyptic future, except this movie is not about religion or God. It is about the perpetual motion of a global economic system that controls the world, fosters class stratification and will be the engine behind its own destruction. Joon-ho admits that while the film is based on the graphic novel, the only part of the novel he used was the image of the train. The rest of the film is a creation of Joon-Ho’s vividly apocalyptic imagination.

The entire movie takes place within the train and operates like an extended metaphor for class stratification and apocalyptic revolution. As the train – created and governed by dictator entrepreneur Wilford (Ed Harris) – circles the frozen globe in a perpetual circle, the film moves from car to car as if from stanza to stanza in a poem about class, the end of the world, and a vividly violent portrayal of the human race self-serving survivalists. Dark, absurd, deadly serious and darkly comical, the film is visually stunning as well as a fun though violently apocalyptic ride.

Many critics have referred to Snowpiercer as the most political and revolutionary movie of the year, but if you really look at its parts – from the beginning to the end – you will find that revolution is a much more complex concept than a change of order. In fact, in this film, it would seem that true revolution will not bring on a change of regime but rather the apocalypse.

The movie starts in the tail of the train where the lowest classes are crammed in filth and feed off protein bars made of ground insects. Wilford’s minion Mason (an outlandish, unrecognizable and devilishly evil Tilda Swinton) serves as his Prime Minister and Minister of Propaganda. She spews a stream of phrases such as: “The engine is eternal” and “Be a shoe” as she head counts passengers to maintain perfect balance. She garners passengers from the impoverished rear of the train – children and violinists – to feed the needs and desires of the wealthy up front. When one man throws a shoe at a bureaucrat who takes a woman’s child, Mason has his arm locked outside in the freezing cold, turned to ice, and then shattered off his body with a giant sledge hammer while the impoverished watch this lesson in the consequences of civil disobedience. Mason holds up this shoe and announces: “This is not a shoe. This is Size 10 chaos.” She then orders the population to, “Be a shoe!”  This scene is comically horrific in typical Bong Joon-ho style where he mixes the absurd with the deadly serious.

When a band from the tail section lead by revolutionary Curtis (Chris Evans who also played Captain America and points to some of the ironies and tensions that underscore the film) plan to storm the train and take control of the engine, they don’t say “Take the engine and save the world.” They say, “Take the engine and CONTROL THE WORLD.” This is important to note. As the train moves in a circle, its front always returns to the rear and the rear returns to the front. History and a long tradition of dystopian fiction (the most recent being The Hunger Games trilogy) has taught us that revolution usually ends with a new form of dictatorship and that human nature in general is inclined to self-interest and preservation over the well-being of the group. This is made clear in many scenes in the film. The band of passengers who lead the revolution never state that they want to save the world. Edgar (Jamie Bell) wants to taste steak. Tanya (Octavia Spencer) wants to save her son Tim. Curtis wants to save his own tortured conscience and most likely just wants power and control. When push comes to shove and Mason realizes that her life will be sacrificed for revenge and the goals of the revolution, she just wants to save her own ass. She begs the revolutionaries to spare her life and kill Wilford instead. She turns coat in a heartbeat when her own life is at stake.

When the revolutionaries break into the prison section of the train, they have one motivation. They want to free Namgoong Minsoo (veteran Korean actor Kang-ho Song) who designed all the security doors on the train. He is the one who can open the doors that will eventually lead to the “eternal engine”. They wake him from an imprisoned state of limbo, and Minsoo then has his own agenda – to save his daughter Yono, maintain and get high on a steady supply of Kronole (an addictive drug and waste explosive byproducts), and get off the train.

snowpiercer

In this movie, the train both circles the world and is the world. Earth, as we see it from the windows, is a sumptuously apocalyptic vision of ice and decay. Frozen buildings stand like skeletons of what once was perceived as the order of things. Now the order is contained by containment itself – a series of connected cars that circle the earth over and over, year after year. The year is 2031, and the train has been circling the globe for 17 years, since 2014. In other words, the train has been going since NOW, and maybe we are already on the “eternal train” of global capitalism that is taking us for a ride.  The film does point to humanity’s complacent acceptance of a destructive system and a futility of going against the system. People go along for the ride until they have been pushed too far and try to take over the train. But when they finally get to the front of the train, they discover really they have just returned to the tail.

Revolutionaries are revealed to be self-serving cannibals who are enticed to become dictators.  They do succeed in blowing up the system, and in a fantastic End-of-World sequence, a giant avalanche brings the train down. But what falls first? The tail. As tons of ice destroy the train, the cars that house the poorest people are the first to go. The train isn’t just a circle, but its serpent like shape echoes the Ouroboros (an ancient image of eternal return, but also an image of End Times as seen in Abel Ferrera’s apocalyptic vision 4:44 Last Day on Earth). Indeed Snowpiercer is not just a train but a snake that eats its own tail. While the movie does overtly use the image of the train to address class stratification and the division between the Haves and Have Nots, Snowpiercer is ultimately a movie of revolutionary apocalypse.

The train spans the globe and therefore represents the globe. The “eternal engine” is also the engine that runs the world – capitalism. Bong Joon-ho says in an interview with i09 that capitalism is the world’s biggest enemy and the biggest threat to nature. On some level, because the train is a closed system yet circles the entire globe and the occupants of the train are of all ethnicities, the train is representative of the engine of global capitalism –  the goods of which are largely moved by container trains. These may be the last survivors of humanity on a vehicle being perpetually propelled through an apocalyptic landscape, but this is not the Ark we see in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah where all the occupants and survivors are white. The eternal engine is a melting pot of the rich and the poor, the black, yellow, white and everything in between. The fact that the lone survivors are not white, but rather a Korean girl and a black boy, provide a nice antidote to Noah in which the survivors are Noah’s own white children who he encourages to multiply and prosper. No inbred white survivor’s in Bong Joon-ho’s film.

The train represents a singular body comprised of segmented cars which provide the perfect “vehicle” to depict class stratification. Bong Joon-ho depicts this stratification beautifully. He shows economic disparity between classes by moving through the cars of the train. With each new car that the revolutionaries breach, Joon-ho changes the entire aesthetic of the film. Throughout the film, the thrum of the train’s engine is eerily omnipresent, but each car provides different colors, music, and visual aesthetics. As the movie moves its characters and the audience through the film car-by-car, the film’s construction and aesthetics propel us forward through the film and ultimately backward to the beginning as it moves from chaos and bloodshed in the rear sections to ludicrously hallucinatory luxury in the mid and front sections and finally returning to chaos and bloodshed at the helm. The film is a train and we go along for the ride by moving through the cars as if through chapters in a book.

The ride through the cars takes us on an amazing hallucinatory blood-drenched journey. It moves through horrific battles between revolutionaries and security guards. Armies of men in black ski masks slice open a large fish in a surreal image of slaughter. They then battle the revolutionaries with axes. Blood splatters windows, walls and faces. In another car, Mason equips yet another army of security with infrared lenses and orders them to kill off exactly 74% of the population to maintain perfect balance. Children from the tail section storm the car with flames. There is more bloodshed, and the body count escalates. Though this is the future, these scenes depict primal violence of flesh on flesh, bone on bone, axes and torches. There are no high-tech pyrotechnics, just good old fashioned slaughter because in a way this is a timeless tale of the End of Times. As revolutionaries and train police lie dead in heaps, we realize they are all pawns to and casualties of the System (the “eternal engine”).

We then move through the food supply room where a giant vat of insects is ground into protein bars. We breach the water supply that runs the engine. Crossing into the water supply provides a huge shift in aesthetics. We wander through a greenhouse with blooming fruit trees. Blinding light from the frozen exterior landscape seeps from windows, and we capture the first sunlight after traversing cars of darkness.  Quiet classical music plays in the background as a woman absurdly knits. Absurdity is everywhere in these scenes because the System itself is absurd.

The revolutionaries move through an indoor aquarium, a scene of surreal beauty following in the trail of extreme brutality. They sit and eat sushi as they watch the frozen world go by. Bong Joon-ho is notorious for ludicrous food scenes. Food is the basic need for survival, and in this film it is controlled by the privileged for their own luxury and greed.

The revolutionaries enter cars that look like something from Kubrick’s The Shining with creepy rich people hovering like ghosts, dining and drinking in a hallucinatory nightmare of furs and evening gowns. They move through a car that serves as a meat locker.  Giant slabs of beef and rows of chickens hang from hooks, representing the excessive disparity between classes both literally and metaphorically. Beauty parlors house fat rich women under large hair dryers while a sulfur yellow saturated sauna car becomes the site of yet another massacre. Then towards the front of the train, we enter a school room where the children of privilege are being indoctrinated in the eternal power of Wilford.  The System is a mish-mash of theocracy, capitalism and despotism as fed to these children and portrayed in the film. Religion, power, money – they are all part of the same eternal engine.

It is in the school room where things really explode. Up to this point, all the violence has been brutally physical. In a celebration of the New Year (another circle around the globe), a man wheels in a cart full of boiled eggs. Much is made of extinction in the film. Cigarettes are extinct. Animals are extinct. Chickens are extinct. And bullets are extinct. But it turns out that extinction is just another myth used to control the lower classes, as automatic weapons are pulled out of the cart of eggs and used to violently gun down the majority of surviving revolutionaries to stem off the revolt and maintain perfect population balance. The sound of gunfire is ear piercing as the image of eggs and guns show that neither chickens or bullets are extinct but just hoarded and controlled by those in power.

The core of the revolutionaries survives and work their way through a disco car throbbing with techno music as the opiated rich lie around high on Kronole.  Minsoo and his daughter Yona scoop up piles of the drug while Curtis makes it to the engine. In the end it is Minsoo, Yona and Curtis against the world or at least against Wilford.  Curtis has a showdown with Wilford for control of the train while Minsoo and Yona attempt to get off the train altogether.

By this time nearly everyone has died. Wilford points to the masses of survivors bludgeoning each other in chaos. He says this is the world, and if we believe the vision of this film, he might not be that wrong. Wilford explains that this is why we need the “engine” and eternal order. But that’s just bullshit. Disillusionment unfolds as Wilford explains that the revolutionaries’ Number One Guy and Martyr Gilliam (John Hurt) was actually working with Wilford to orchestrate revolutions as a means of population control and propaganda. Curtis reveals that he is no revolutionary at all, but actually just another self-serving preservationist in a corrupt Darwinian system. He murdered a mother to eat her baby. He describes the early days in the tail of the train as a gruesome scene of desperate cannibalism in which he was more interested in his own needs and desires than those of the group. He spared his own arm while he ate the arms of others, including Gilliam, who sacrificed body parts to save babies. Curtis says, “You know what I hate about myself? That I know what people taste like. That I know that babies taste best.” He may hate himself, but it didn’t stop him from saving his own ass and arm. That’s why he is the only one to make it to the front of the train, and that is also why has to go.

In the beginning of the film, we are told that “the engine lasts forever,” but the message of the film is that it only lasts forever until you blow it up. The film ends not with successful revolution, but with apocalyptic annihilation. The entire train is destroyed, when Yona blows her way out into the great expanse of snow. She and her father noticed signs of snow melting.  They learned from a past failed revolutionary who was Inuit that they could survive the cold. So they blow a hole through the train which causes the avalanche that brings the whole Eternal System – the train – down. But by bringing the whole system down, they bring down everything and everyone. Train cars crash as all the survivors plummet to their death.

In the end, only two children survive – Yona and Tim. They step outside and glance in wonder at a snowy embankment where polar bear looks down at them, and the film ends. We are left with no answers. Is the polar bear a sign of hope or just another predator in a system where the fittest survive if they are allowed an opportunity? Are the children hope or are they just food, a hearty meal for the polar bear who was nearly brought to extinction by global warming in the first place? Yes, we have come full circle, except that this time the engine lies dead in the snow, and the sushi bar, luxury nightclub, greenhouse and cattle cars full of poor people are buried in mangled pieces of a broken train. There is no answer. There is only the end at the beginning.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.