Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

There Is No John Galt: On Snowpiercer and Himizu

February 28 2020

Following his success at the Oscars, Bong Joon-ho is the man of the year. It’s just as well, since he might be the single best genre filmmaker working today. From the beginnings of his career, he prided himself on dancing a very difficult waltz, balancing a keen and incisive commentary on political, social, and environmental issues with the storytelling abilities to entertain audiences. It’s a moral dilemma—tragedy in the service of entertainment—that Bong has mastered with grace, combining sardonic wit with humanism. Parasite is just the latest example of this, and it should be noted that the innate “Koreanness” of Bong’s characterizations and the infusion of his own culture do not hamper his ability to translate his ideas and mechanisms to the Hollywood traditions of genre cinema.

It is not without controversy, excited discussion, and a fair number of detractors, but Snowpiercer remains perhaps the best narrative metaphor for climate change’s intersection with class struggle that Hollywood has offered at least in the last decade, if not ever. This isn’t a minor feat, as it’s very uncharacteristic of a Hollywood studio to allow clear and obvious examinations of class conflict without putting the social commentary on the backburner or delivering an easily digestible white savior story, where crises are averted with idealistic solutions dependent on a John Galt-style individualist struggle. Snowpiercer subverts so many trends of the traditional Hollywood narrative, re-aligning them all to form a full repudiation of individualist solutions.

Snowpiercer takes place on a high-speed mega-train, where all remaining humans live following a capitalist counter-measure to climate change inadvertently makes the entire world uninhabitable. The train’s cars aren’t a metaphor. They are quite literally a system of class division in society with the lowest classes at the rear of the train. As you proceed towards the engine, you see the people get wealthier. Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), our hero, is the savior destined to overthrow the class system of the train. He has a ragtag group of lower-class individuals, including a security specialist named Namgoong (Song Kang-ho) and his clairvoyant daughter Yona. The stakes and structure function as a grand social puzzle which says much more than what is presented on screen.

Perhaps the cartoonish villains, namely Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), with their grotesque displays of decadence and immoral consumption, may initially seem off-putting or heavy-handed, but if we’ve learned anything over the last four years, it’s that there is really no way to exaggerate their vehement disregard for human life anywhere below them on the ladder. Bong is, in retrospect, perfectly sensible here in his characterizations. The satire of these strange, exclusionary luxuries are revealing themselves quite literally in the real world, through high-priced underground freeway systems, Uber helicopters, and the strange obsession billionaires have with colonizing Mars. Like a group of termites devouring a tree, the wealthy and elite look upon the destruction of a planet not with horror but with glee, having filled themselves up on it and left nothing but dust, ready to discover whatever and wherever is next to consume.

The violence in the movie is less a matter of indulgent display of technical prowess as much as it is jumbled, disorganized, and difficult to follow. The body count and non-stop encounters with amoral bloodlust—especially in the classroom scene which starts with indoctrination of children and ends in a shootout—indicate a class system and economic disparity that exacerbates societal self-destruction. Having inextricably linked the realities of climate change with class struggle, Bong makes it clear that tragedy and death befall the lower classes regardless of whether the rebellion is won or lost, because the system, dependent on class divide, is engineered to kill the most vulnerable and disenfranchised first.

We learn that a mental seed planted by the conductor and engineer of the train, a recluse enigmatic man named Wilford, propelled Curtis’s entire revolution, which turned out to be nothing but a puppet show. The destruction left in the wake of the revolt becomes far more devastating and the myth of Curtis becomes far less appealing. This is the final turn in Snowpiercer, which demolishes the façade of the Hollywood underdog story, fueled by a false belief in the white savior and the American Dream and every other fantasy that narrative peddles in the face of human catastrophe, class conflict, racial injustice, and environmental destruction. Killing the conductor doesn’t stop the train from moving.

If individualism is a fraud in Snowpiercer, it is the last resort of world-weary youth and a direct source of destruction and societal ill in Sion Sono’s Himizu. Centering around a group of displaced individuals all fending for themselves after their homes and livelihoods are all destroyed by a tsunami, Sono’s film repudiates structure and embellishes in the chaos and disillusionment of shattered worlds. One of the victims of the tsunami is Sumida, a 14-year-old boy who lives with a frequently absent and abusive father and a neglectful mother. His existence amid the destruction trends toward nihilism.

Keiko, Sumida’s young classmate, follows him around in amorous affection, trying to get him to enjoy her poetry, play games, and accept her as a partner in his life. Keiko understands, probably more than anyone else in the film, that companionship is the most powerful amid despair, but the world of Sono’s Himizu is so chaotically foundationless, that his characters are biting, scraping, clawing, and running towards anything that will give even a modicum of solace. Sumida sees Keiko, but he does not see the happiness of being with her.

Sion Sono is anti-structural and anti-metaphorical, but he is, like Bong, also anti-individualist. After his teacher delivers a nationalist screed about the Japanese continuously rising from the ashes of tragedy, and then a statement on how every one of his students is exceptional and unique, Sumida yells in class that being ordinary is good. He is tortured by what Keiko considers are exceptional thoughts: the need to kill his father and other wrongdoers, in his obsession with vengeance. These are the markers of someone who is out to make a difference, for better or for worse. For Sumida, ordinary means you have privacy and control. His thoughts of killing, which haunt him after he buys a knife, are the last desperate answer to find control over a life devastated by environmental ruin. He contemplates and attempts to kill many people: a yakuza boss who is owed 6 million yen by his father, a harasser on the bus, a homicidal maniac loose downtown. All of these are thwarted, driving him to look further and further, find more opportunities, and slowly go insane.

Himizu interrupts its narrative with sequences of his characters wandering like ghosts through the wreckage of the tsunami, unable to comprehend the destruction, unable to decide whether to live on or simply die. The morose atmosphere that consumes the film emanates from an inability to return to a life once lived. It’s a powerfully secure and comfortable thing to have a routine, knowledge, relations, and a personal grip on the things and people in your life: your home, your friends, your weekend plans, your work, your hobbies. When everything is gone in the blink of an eye, there is no control, there is no direction, and the adjustment is mentally ravaging. The final shot of Himizu is Sumida running from his home, with Keiko following him, yelling. The audience doesn’t know where he is going and neither does he.