The Kim family squats in their dank basement apartment, assembling cardboard pizza boxes and trying not to breathe too deeply as fumes from the street extermination waft in from the open window. The piece work doesn’t pay well, but since the whole family is out of work, they can’t afford to pass up an opportunity.
And then, a stroke of luck: the Kims’ son is offered a job tutoring a young girl from a rich family. With some forged credentials, he’s in. Recognizing an open door when he sees one, the son soon proposes his sister (posing as a mere acquaintance) as an art tutor. A few more forgeries later, the Kims have secured two high-paying jobs from a family they increasingly see as gullible. Do they quit while they are ahead? They do not. Mom and Dad are found jobs as well, though by “found”, I mean they set up other employees to be fired, thus “creating” positions for each other.
Their pursuit is so ruthless, you start to question who, if anyone, you should be rooting for. Bong Joon-ho, the visionary director of Snowpiercer, has once again presented us with a treatise on class systems; indeed, class warfare.
A parasite is an organism that needs to leech off something else in order to live. Of course, our impoverished protagonists rely on jobs from their privileged employers, but Bong makes it clear that it works both ways: the rich, unable or unwilling to care for their homes or their children, rely on workers who must do much for little pay. The degree to which the rich allow virtual strangers into their homes and lives is ripe for abuse, and this posh, architectural marvel of a house soon becomes an upstairs/downstairs rebellion with deadly consequences.
As we’ve come to expect, Bong is a master at ratcheting up the tension. The film could stand to be a little shorter, but with so many parts working so well to stun and enthrall, it would be a shame to see any of it go.
Thank you, Snowpiercer, for giving me a Bong Joon-ho movie that I can watch! Bong is such a talented director that it made a wimp like me try (and fail) to watch The Host. But not only is Snowpiercer his first English-language movie, it’s also accessible to jerks like me. Which is not to say it isn’t scary because intellectually, it’s nasty as hell. It’s not horror so much as dystopia, and the scariest thing of all is how soon it’s set: 2014. Well, technically the main action is taking place in 2031 or thereabouts, but basically in 2014 humans tried to repair some of the damage we’ve done to the climate and it went disastrously wrong. The earth froze over, so a very select few were chosen to fight for survival on a perpetually moving train. The train has elite passengers at the front, living in luxury, and the unwashed masses are crammed in at the back, living in filth and poverty and darkness.
Mason (Tilda Swinton), the train’s disciplinarian, doles out some very harsh punishments to those who step out of their lane. But there are serious rumblings coming from the back of the train – Curtis (Chris Evans) is the reluctant leader of a rebellion. Soon he and others (Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, Asung Ko) will make a violent push toward the front, but as usual, the haves will never make it easy for the have-nots.
The film, based on a graphic novel, is a brilliant commentary on class warfare. But it’s not just a matter of class, or economics. It smacks of Marxism, but is tainted with Darwinism. The oblivious first class passengers see their station as right and just, pre-ordained even, and cluelessly talk about their own sacrifices. But ultimately, they are being controlled just as much as the proletariat in the back. The propaganda starts with the schoolchildren and never ends. Free will is an illusion carefully meted out by those in charge. So is hope, and that’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow.
The film’s momentum is as relentless as the rebellion. Once they start making their push toward the engine, the train itself is a revelation. Production made a 100m replica of the train, and each of the train’s cars is wilder than the last, each more breathtaking, each scattered with clues. And the view outside the train’s windows of the frozen wasteland of earth is strangely beautiful, almost mesmerizing – it’s both serene in its tranquility and violent as the train continues to punch through the continually forming ice and snow. Bong tends to shoot the action with the tail section toward the left of the screen and the engine toward the right, so you always get the sensation that things are moving. It’s a really cool way to orient the audience and keep things pressing forward.
Tilda Swinton gives one of the most compelling and bizarre performances of her career, and if you know Swinton’s body of work at all, you know what a tall, broad drink of water that statement is. Bong Joon-ho originally wrote the part of Mason with John C. Reilly in mind; at the time he was a much more peaceful character. When Swinton landed the part, Bong changed the role but left in the male gender markers. Swinton wears glasses that were once her own – when Bong visited her at her home, he found them in her children’s dress up box, and insisted she wear them. Mason has a gold glinting tooth that is often visible, especially the more unhinged she (he?) becomes. She’s based the character on Margaret Thatcher, which is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Thatcher died the year this came out (2013) so I doubt she ever saw/heard of this unflattering ode, which may be for the best.
Chris Evans pursued the part even though Bong Joon-ho thought he was wrong for it. Bong thought he was simply too fit for a guy who’s been living in the cramped quarters of a dirty train compartment for the past 15 years, never seeing sunlight, subsisting on protein bars made of ground up insects. Evans was clearly persuasive and he’s clearly right for the part – Bong made it work by strategically using wardrobe and camera angles to downplay his physique.
The action sequences are other-worldly. You know which scene I’m going to talk about: a door slides open to reveal a car full of men wearing black fetish masks. Only they’re not here to have safe-word sex. They’re all holding hatchets. They’re here to murder you. In a deep, cleaving way. And then the lights go out. It’s dark like a nightmare and the axe battle is on. They pass up torches from the rear and that’s the only light lighting the scene, which is expertly done. Park Chan-wook serves as a producer and you can’t help but see Oldboy flavours in this scene. It’s spooky and tense and brutal.
Though the train’s engine is meant to be one of perpetual motion, lots of stuff inside the train is actually going extinct (like cigarettes, which will be missed). Life outside the train, however, may actually be returning. In the film’s final shot, the survivors’ sense of hope is buoyed by the sight of a polar bear, a sure sign that life on earth will continue. I think the choice of a polar bear is significant: our news feeds have been inundated with the sight of starved polar bears, of polar bears literally drowning because the ice is melting and swims between ice floes have become too long to sustain. Polar bears are a vulnerable, at-risk species. Snowpiercer’s healthy, satiated polar bear indicates that what they really need to thrive is the loss of their greatest threat: humanity.
The new CEO of Mirando, Lucy (Tilda Swinton), announces that her company has made a discovery that will rid the world of hunger: a super piglet that looks like a cross between a rhino and an elephant that we’re assured tastes really fucking good. 26 super piglets are distributed to farmers around the world to be cared for over the next decade. In 10 years, popular TV veterinarian Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) will judge them and declare one ‘the best.’
Cut to: 10 years later, Wilcox hikes up a remote Korean hillside to visit Okja, a prized super piglet raised by Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her father. Raised on love and freedom, Okja is objectively the best of the bunch, but that means this beloved pet must go to NYC to be paraded around by its parent corporation (to disguise the secret testing) – unless of course she’s kidnapped by the Animal Liberation Front headed by Jay (Paul Dano), “not a terrorist,” along the way. And the ALF is only the first group of people Mija will come across that want to control the fate of her large friend, Okja.
Co-written and directed by Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon Ho, you can bet he’s got some interesting thing to say about these events: GMOs, image-obsessed corporations, eco-terrorism. But he cleverly brings it back to one of the most basic relationships to remind us of what’s important: the one between a girl and her best friend, the family pet. Here in North America, not only can we not imagine eating dogs, we object to it morally. Here, we name our dogs, we sleep curled up beside them, we feed them table scraps from our fingers, we look into their sweet faces and tell them they’re good boys, very good boys. If we accorded all animals the respect we give our pets, it would change the food industry as we know it. This is the way Bong Joon Ho choose to frame Okja’s predicament.
Tonally, Okja is very different from Snowpiercer. If the score doesn’t alert you to its farcical nature, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s voice doesn’t do it, then the unconvincing CGI will likely push you in that very direction. But Bong Joon Ho’s skill as a director means that he juggles these switchbacks in tone very carefully, and Okja’s whimsy never fails. Yes, it’s a completely weird movie, one that can feel like a cartoon and a horror at the same time, that can make you laugh amid the darkest of scenes. I realize this movie won’t be for everyone, but I found it profoundly interesting. Tilda Swinton is excellent, and Gyllenhaal does something we’ve never seen from him before. But it’s Seo-Hyun Ahn who steals the show, her bond with Okja and her purity of heart that elevate this movie from fantasy to fable.
I haven’t exactly planned on taking three months off from Wandering Through the Shelves’ Thursday Movie Picks. Every week I plan a post for Thursday but haven’t seemed to manage getting my shit together in time.
I couldn’t miss the chance to talk about train movies though. I like trains. Wanderer’s timing is impeccable as usual given that my father just retired at the beginning of the month after 39 (I think) years working for CN Rail. Also, Jay, Sean, and I leave for TIFF today. Taking the train to Toronto is a treasured TIFF tradition for me and how fitting to pay homage to trains today as we start a new annual tradition of The Assholes at TIFF.
From Russia With Love (1963)– One of my favourite Bond movies devotes more than 30 minutes of its 115-minute running time to a chapter aboard the Orient Express. Sean Connery’s 007 and gorgeous Russian spy Tatiana Romanova dodge Russian agents and the great Robert Shaw’s sadistic Grant and still find time to shag in the berth and visit the dining car. Bond and Grant’s final fight in the cramped sleeping quarters ranks among one of the best fights in the whole series.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)– Still on the Orient Express, still Connery. Sidney Lumet’s murder mystery is set almost entirely aboard the train and is apparently the only adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel that Christie ever liked. Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, and Ingrid Bergman stand out among a dream cast that has almost as many Oscar winners and nominees as it does speaking parts.
Snowpiercer (2014)– Living on a train that circles the globe sounded like my dream come true until director Joon-Ho Bong showed me all the things that could go wrong. A strict class system keeps the poor in the back of the train in claustrophobic conditions while those at the front of the train call the shots. We get to see more and more of the train as a group of rebels from the caboose make a daring run to the front. The design of the train is just brilliant with every car looking significantly different from the last.