Akshay Seth: The political importance of 'Snowpiercer'

By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published July 17, 2014

This column contains spoilers to “Snowpiercer”

A little more than 100 days have passed since the Central Student Government decisively struck down the UM Divest resolution drafted and presented by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE). As opposed to calling for revisions to the University’s investment policies, this resolution attempted to directly divert funds — funds accrued through the tuition and housing payments made by students themselves — away from Caterpillar, General Electric, Heidelberg Cement, United Technologies and “all other companies that explicitly profit from and facilitate the Israeli occupation and siege of Palestinian land in violation of international law and human rights.”

In the 100 days since this broad stroke yet seemingly crucial proposition was barred by our student representatives, dialogue about the divestment campaign has slowly trickled away, buried along with the #UMDivest-tagged Instagram photos of sit-ins collecting dust beneath photos of people putting graduation hats on their dogs. But right now I think the more relevant question is why I’m using this otherwise fun space — usually reserved for nail-biting analyses of YouTube comments — to pry open a can of worms left idle in that ever-expanding, ever-forgotten cupboard called Student Activism. Like any worthwhile query, its answer involves a bong: Korean maestro Bong Joon-ho and his first English-language feature: “Snowpiercer.”

Initially confined to just eight screens, strong word-of-mouth in the last few has propelled a VOD release and made room for critics to squeeze this much-hyped sci-fi-apocalypse extravaganza into a box of bandwagon assertions: It’s simply a critique of classism; a blunt swing at bureaucracy; the most politically charged picture of the year. Of course, any movie that features Tilda Swinton sputtering phrases like “preordained position” or “know your place” or “I’m a hat. You’re a shoe” 20 minutes through the gates is bound to set its sights on the perils of omnipresent authority. Yet what makes this Bong Joon-ho masterpiece so absorbing, so confounding is how deftly it’s able to use its brilliant ensemble cast to highlight much more intriguing cracks in that otherwise formulaic message.

The film picks up 17 years into the future after humanity, in an attempt to counteract the effects of global warming, has pushed the world into its sixth major ice age. Temperatures reach unfathomable lows, all life freezes over and scattered remnants of the human race subsist by crowding into one of Wilford Industries’ globe-circling luxury trains — the only vehicles excessive enough to survive Earth’s tundra-like conditions. Blatant differences between first class, economy and “the rear section” emerge immediately, and with nowhere to go, the oppressed passengers in the train’s filthiest regions begin revolting. But rebellion after rebellion is quelled by the wealthier occupants until finally, a charismatic young leader named Curtis Everett spearheads a train-spanning uprising from tail to engine room.

Bong uses Curtis’s Rebellion as a makeshift chassis for his film. He steers audiences, compartment by compartment, from colorless poverty to the bright, exclusive sophistication of wealth. Every gate promises a new luxury. The rear-occupants never know what it’ll be, but Bong makes sure that it’s always something basic, something we take for granted — a break of sunlight, oranges, sushi, a pack of cigarettes — and in doing so, he implicates his audience as part of the problem, the upper class.

So the moment Curtis walks through the final doors and arrives at his destination, Bong has guided us through the literal steps of upward social mobility: the American dream. Curtis and his companions never really pretend to blend in with their rapidly transforming surroundings. We never even see them ironing out any specific goals or demands. No, their cause is simple, noble even. They have no clue or care about what’s through the gates because they’re convinced their lives can’t get any worse. They’re just fighting to make them a little bit more bearable.

In most movies the resolution would be to kill off one or two of the characters, maybe even the protagonist, and send everyone else home with a feeling of accomplishment. But somewhere along the way, Bong Joon-ho makes it clear this film’s intentions are much loftier. Curtis becomes the moral center of the film moments after he points his feet in the direction of the engine room. Every transition in the script is framed by his sacrifices: Someone in the main cast has to die to move the story along — Edgar in the tunnel battle, Gilliam and Andrew in the classroom, Grey and Tanya in the steam room — so by the time we’ve traversed the full length of the train, from one extreme of economic inequity to the other, each of Curtis’s tail-section companions are long gone.

The movie’s steady traversal of this social ladder becomes a condemnation of the humanity we throw away in its pursuit, but Bong saves an essential question for the film’s final moments: If the roles were reversed, would the oppressed be any better than their oppressors? In a crucial scene halfway through the film, the character played by Octavia Spencer, Tanya, spots an old violinist who’d been forced to abandon his wife to play for the wealthy. He seems clean and happy. Instead of delving deeper into his story or offering any background about why he’s suddenly so compliant with the demands of his new neighbors, Bong deflates the entire situation with two sentences: “Is that really Gerald? He looks damn great!”

As Curtis’s pupils fixate on the engine, he wonders if his friends died so he could retain the power, the wealth he’s desired his entire life. He stares longingly at the steak dinner sitting in front of him. For the first time he realizes why this coordinated cycle of death is never-ending: just chaos, instigated by the rich and suffered by the poor. He cuts off an arm to ensure a future for those around him and eventually derails the entire train, killing himself in the process. When credits roll, the film becomes more an ode to these sacrifices than anything else.

And here, Bong Joon-ho lays out his understated critique of detachment, of some of the people fronting vital movements like UM Divest — the people who’ve never known what real poverty or sacrifice entails. The ones who religiously attended every sit-in with their best friends but have never spoken about the campaign since. The ones who responded to opponents by blanketly labeling them racists and inspired nothing more than alienation or mistrust as a result.

The bill’s failure may have been disheartening, but it’s wrong to call it unexpected. Before Michigan entered the fray, similar calls for divestment had sprung up in college campuses across the nation, and overwhelmingly, governing bodies chose to keep their investment policies intact. So why did we choose to so heavily prioritize a divestment campaign when in the University’s past 100 years, it’s been accomplished on just two other occasions? Why were our arguments broadened, simplified to attract extremist personalities who spewed nothing but hate into an already charged dialogue?

Because we were happy as long as people continued talking. But the option to look away is a hallmark of those in charge, the ones sitting comfy next to the engine room. And yes, we raised awareness, we got dialogue flowing, but we did it through hate, by blaming and excluding those who didn’t agree with us. There was no real understanding, no sympathy from both sides when the resolution failed to pass; just divisiveness and more detachment. The first step to change is acknowledging, as Curtis did, that we’re part of the problem. We can’t keep pretending that standing on the sidelines and going to protests destined to fail are our best option.

In his 2006 film, “The Host,” Bong Joon-ho paints an interesting portrait of student activism: oblivious, self-righteous and inexperienced youth with an undeniable penchant for bravery. But bravery only comes with a willingness to accept the world isn’t black and white. Making a difference requires a willingness to convince those who don’t see eye to eye with us, having the presence of mind to not accuse and demonize them. It requires compromise. As Bong clarifies through Curtis: The difference between heroism and blindness is sacrifice — painful, unyielding sacrifice.