“Snowpiercer” May Not Be What it Seems. Is it Really Progressive Cinema Criticizing Capitalism?
Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2013) is an American-styled South Korean blockbuster directed by a successful director with a growing international reputation. As such, the film combines a variety of strands and cultural legacies, ranging from the traditional Hollywood action film to the comic book to the video game. In spite of being such a hodgepodge, Snowpiercer has been marked for standing as a coherent denunciation of a vertically integrated (and hyper-capitalist) society, wherein the indispensable base to the running of the locomotive is the poor (the proletariat), who live in dismal conditions at the tail end of the ‘snowpiercer’ train. The further up you go in the train, the wealthier and more luxurious the cars become, representing a decadent hyperclass population spending their lives basking in high-consumerism abandon.
Naturally Snowpiercer is an allegory (a story with a hidden meaning, typically teaching a moral or political lesson). As such, it is not meant to be taken at face value, but the elements onscreen often summon realist stereotypes (the poor living in gritty and dirty locales, feeding off of the refuse of the rich, while the latter’s bask in warm and comfortable environments). Simply put, the images on the screen are not meant to be taken literally, but yet they carry a measure of (at times extreme) realism. This paradox raises several issues, including that of how these elements have to be taken, for instance in the film’s representation of race: amidst good looking (and Caucasian) heroic individuals, mystical and wise Asians, orphaned sidekicks, cyborg-like special security agents, it is still the African-American character who stands out, constituting a rather appalling stereotype, seemingly straight out of a 1930s movie, rags and all (and this reference doesn’t seem to be very self-conscious on the part of the filmmaker).
Here it should be noted that South Korea is a country which has enjoyed tremendous economic growth over the last fifteen years, but which remains highly problematic with regard to its relationship to democracy, capitalism (it is a de facto corporate-run oligarchy), gender and racial issues (it is often pointed out as being one of the first-world countries where ethnic minorities are worst off, especially migrant workers from South East Asia). So, if the film criticizes the upper class as idly cavorting on the backs of the lower classes, it doesn’t avoid the pitfall of reproducing South Korean stereotypes and clichés vis-à-vis race and gender.
Another problem in the film which is connected to its parochial race and gender politics, is the rather simplistic way in which it portrays class dynamics: block by block, literally, and with the intimation that there are elements among the lower classes who consciously conspire with the elite (see the relationship between John Hurt’s and Ed Harris’s characters), in some obscure way to maintain the status quo. This goes completely against traditional Marxist doxa, for which the class struggle must lead, dialectically, to an eventual collapse of the exploiting and idle hyper-class, and triumph of the working class—the proletariat, leading to a happy end to history, a society with no more class distinction, and all the social injustice contained in the latter.
Instead, the film suggests, as it were, that at least some constituents of the poorer classes are complicit with the global capitalist ‘scheme’, maintaining their lower social status deliberately, in the belief that it be a ‘natural’ order of things. In spite of this, and perhaps earnestly convinced that it is on the left of the spectrum, the film gleefully embraces the ‘dialectical clash’ aesthetics, clearly borrowed from the Soviet films of Sergey Eisenstein, in the battle scenes between the ‘proletariat’ and the evil soldiers guarding the wealthy from such recurrent rebellions. But it is D.W. Griffith (author of the exciting and seminal but rabidly racist Birth of a Nation), not Eisenstein, who would have been the more appropriate analogue, here. The filmmaker would have been much better off honing in on a Griffithian ‘race to the rescue’ and rather unveil his film’s true nature: an apocalyptic (not revolutionary) fantasy, a ‘race to apocalypse’, as it were, in which the self-destruction of capitalism doesn’t seem to suggest any viable socio-economic alternative, but rather a weird snowy and icy ‘Eden’, populated by polar bears (!!), for the two surviving characters following the ‘inevitable’ train wreck which follows the revolutionary uprising.
For all intents and purposes, Snowpiercer might be considered by some a fun and stylish thrill ride (no matter how much of a screenwriting mess it actually is), but its glib socio-economic commentary and class and race representations, heavily tinted with xenophobia (again, accountable to South Korean prejudices, rather than sheer malice, no doubt), could hardly appeal to anyone truly on the Left. Snowpiercer ends up being a moralizing, rather than political, film, whose target might as well have been the much reviled (but hardly capitalist!) North Korean neighbor (associated with a cold, vertically integrated society, dominated by a stifling military elite, etc.). Finally, the film itself seems less problematic than those who have enthusiastically advocated for it as a piece of progressive, anti-capitalist cinema: indeed, one is left to wonder how those praising the film’s agenda, were left seemingly unfazed by the tension between its supposedly revolutionary (but in fact catastrophy-oriented) politics and, of course, its big budget (despite its rather dismal CGI).