This past Monday, a blogger friend of mine from Belfast decided to offer his thoughts on this year’s Academy Awards. He began with a simple statement: he had not seen this year’s winner for Best Picture, Parasite. He went on to say that none of his friends had seen it, either. So, he was asking for input from his acquaintances in the blogging world. Had any of us watched this movie or was this another case of Hollywood opting to honour an artsy movie that no one, outside of their own circle, really cared about? He concluded his remarks by stating that he had just seen 1917 and thought it was pretty good.
Like my friend, I had not seen Parasite nor, had anyone that I was aware of. I had seen 1917 so I wanted to comment on the post but, before I did, I felt compelled to research Parasite a little first so that I could speak with a modicum of knowledge in my comment. So, I went to Twitter and typed in #Parasite. Scores of tweets poured forth. The bulk of the initial comments were reactions to some of the racially-insensitive comments being made by those offended by the fact that a foreign film had won Best Picture and that the director, Bong Joon Ho, made his acceptance speech in a combination of broken english and his own, native Korean. Normally, I follow the rule of thumb that advises us all to not go down the rabbit hole when it comes to most on-line comment threads. But, because I was thirsting for facts about this movie, I ignored my own advice and plunged in. For once, I was glad that I did.
About one third of the way into the comment thread, someone decided to take the conversation in a different direction. They tweeted their hope that now that Bong Joon Ho had been brought into the public eye in North America that, perhaps, some of his earlier films would gain renewed interest and recognition. In particular, this person recommended Bong Joon Ho’s very first big budget movie, Snowpiercer. As soon as Snowpiercer was mentioned, the thread took off in a whole different, excitable direction, with dozens of fans chiming in to say what an amazing movie Snowpiercer was. But what really caught my attention…..and what went on to inspire this post…..was a tweet by someone who claimed that Snowpiercer was actually a dystopian sequel to the beloved childhood classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! What!? A violent, futuristic tale of class warfare is the sequel to the tale of the world’s finest chocolate maker? This I had to see for myself!
First of all, let’s review the basic premise of the Roald Dahl classic first. In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a mysterious genius has created a perfect world in the artificial setting of a chocolate factory. There is no end to the innovation and imagination on display by Mr. Wonka. Into this world of wonder comes a group of children and adults. Within this group, their are different personality types, reflective of various segments of society at the time. As this group attempts to co-exist with Wonka’s factory, the true characteristics of each child come to the fore and, as they explore one magical room after another, they find themselves facing a reckoning that slowly but, surely, whittles the group down to one. That one child, Charlie Bucket, is declared the “winner” by Mr. Wonka who reveals that, in fact, he is tired of running the factory and is seeking someone to take over the reins and that, in fact, that person is Charlie Bucket. I have read the Roald Dahl book to many students over the years and we have watched the original movie, staring Gene Wilder as Wonka, many times as well. It is a classic tale told very well and is deserving of every accolade it has received over the years.
Snowpiercer is set in the not-too-distant future. In an effort to alleviate the effects of Climate Change, scientists have released a refrigerant into the atmosphere to cool rising global temperatures. However, the effect of this is that Earth freezes and all life goes extinct, except for those lucky enough to find refuge on this train that endlessly circles the Earth. The train is a modern-day version of Noah’s Ark and has been created with enough resources to maintain a complete, bio-diverse eco-system designed to allow those on-board the chance to survive while awaiting the possible return to the outside world should temperature warm enough to allow for regeneration. Like Wonka’s chocolate factory, this train was created by a mythical genius known as Willard, played by Ed Harris. Those who subscribe to the theory that Snowpiercer is, in fact, the sequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory say that Willard is really Charlie Bucket. If you can allow yourself to believe this single fact then, the structure of the remainder of the movie falls neatly into place, despite the fact that Snowpiercer is told more as mash-up between Blade Runner and The Hunger Games.
In Snowpiercer, the Ark-like train is divided up into a series of connected cars; each car containing something different and important when it comes to maintaining the integrity of the eco-system on board. The premise that drives the action forward is that the train has been divided along class lines, too, with the rich at the head of the train and the very poor at the tail of the train. The poor live in squalor and are oppressed at every turn. Eventually, they revolt. The leader of the insurgency is Chris Evans, who played Captain America in the Marvel movies. Like Willy Wonka, the rebels (who are a rag-tag collection of characters) move through the cars on the train, one at a time, like the children moved through Wonka’s magical rooms. At each car, there is action, often violent action, that causes the group to reduce in numbers over time. Eventually, without giving away too many secrets, there is a “winner” in this movie who is asked to take over the running of things on this magical train. As in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the ending of Snowpiercer hints at the possibility of an entirely different way of living; a world devoid of class stratification, wanton violence and discrimination and poverty, too.
One of the sub-texts to the story of Snowpiercer is why this movie is only becoming known now, eight years after it was released. The story of that is one of abusive power. Snowpiercer was Bong Joon Ho’s first big budget movie. In order to arrange financing, Joon Ho entered into a partnership with producer Harvey Weinstein. As the recent history of the #MeToo movement has documented, Weinstein was not the nicest human on the planet, putting it mildly. He wielded the power of his position like a ruthless dictator. For many actresses, it meant sexual abuse. For Bong Joon Ho, it meant a battle for control of his artistic vision for the movie against a man, Weinstein, who was known for expecting the final say on all edits. Because Bong Joon Ho fought back throughout the making of the movie, Weinstein used his clout to severely limit the release of Snowpiercer, to the point where it almost disappeared completely from view.
One of the big “lessons” from this movie is resistance to oppression. In the photo above, Tilda Swinton is a representative from Willard who has been sent to the back of the train to quiet some murmurs of dissent. At the end of her not-well-received speech, one of the poor folk throws his shoe at her and manages a glancing blow. The scene pivots at that point. The man is taken into immediate custody and Swinton, holding his shoe, launches into a speech about how she is a hat and he is a shoe and how hats belong where hats go…on a head….and shoes belong where shoes go….on feet. To mix the roles of hats and shoes is absurd and upsets the carefully-crafted balance of society. In other words, know your place and stay in it! The punishment the man receives is to have the arm he used to throw the shoe placed through a hole in the side of the train so that it is exposed to the freezing outside air. Those in charge do careful calculations as to how long it will take for his arm to freeze solid based upon current weather conditions, the speed of the train, etc. and Swinton speaks for that length of time, accordingly. At the end of her speech, the man’s arm is pulled back in, revealed to be frozen solid like a statue and then, it is chopped off in front of the rest of the poor passengers as a warning to remain obedient. Throughout the rest of the movie, the presence or absence of limbs becomes an underlying layer of added meaning and significance.
Despite the graphic violence (which is on a par with what was shown during the Hunger Games), I thought this movie was amazing! It is very much like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in how imaginative it is, at times, and how mesmerizing some of the scenes are. Social commentary flows through both movies; sometimes, it is blatant and said aloud, sometimes, it is woven into the consequences of the action in a particular scene and remains unspoken. But, through it all, both movies speak to the value and goodness inherent in ordinary humans. Resistance to oppression is healthy and valuable and difficult and dangerous. But, most of all, it is important when forces within a society get too far out of whack. It happened to President Snow in The Hunger Games. It happened to Adolf Hitler in real life. It happened to the likes of Veruca Salt in the Wonka movie. It happened to the inhabitants of Earth prior to the Great Flood in The Bible. It happens in Snowpiercer, too.
Resistance is not futile.
Snowpiercer is playing right now, for free, on Netflix in Canada. I would highly recommend this movie. It is terrific and leaves you with much to think about. But, if I could offer any advice at all prior to watching it would be this; don’t go into this movie expecting The Hunger Games or a Marvel action-type movie. There are enough plot holes in Snowpiercer to drive a truck through. But, if you allow yourself to view this movie through the absurdist lens of Mr. Wonka then, Snowpiercer will blow your mind. The trailer for the movie can be viewed here.
Sometimes it actually pays to read the on-line comments. Without the guidance of others, I would never have even known that such a movie as Snowpiercer existed. Bong Joon Ho is a talented director and is deserving of the praise he is earning for Parasite. Perhaps it is time to give that movie a chance, too. I am betting I won’t be disappointed.