One of the books that has made the greatest impact on me is Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. In that tetralogy the protagonist pledges his allegiance to a rebel leader, and after an epic series of adventures finds himself face-to-face with the authority against which he is rebelling—at which point it is revealed that the rebel leader has been working with that authority, and that the protagonist has been chosen not to overthrow the authority, but to accede to its throne. This is strikingly similar to the plot of Snowpiercer, the film which made Bong Joon-ho’s name internationally, although we only got around to watching it recently in the wake of Parasite.
I don’t actually know if this is an established narrative trope, lurking in the cloud for authors like Wolfe and Bong to grab it, or if the similarity is a pure coincidence. It looks superficially like the sort of plot twist you might find in a spy thriller, but this ‘long journey by which [the protagonist] backed into the throne’ (Wolfe) gives it a more symbolic, allegorical tone. It’s not a plot device I know from anywhere else—Snowpiercer is an adaptation of a bande dessinée by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, but at the time of writing I haven’t read it, and I don’t know if this theme is as central there. I also can’t be sure that it doesn’t strike me as metaphorical simply because Wolfe’s writing is so ornately symbolic, but it is clearly intended that way in Bong’s film, which is political allegory from start to finish.
The world is frozen and lifeless, thanks to a misguided intervention to combat global warming. The only survivors of this tragedy occupy a train which circumnavigates the globe perpetually. Snowpiercer is usually described as a science-fiction film, but such a scenario is clearly a fantasy one, irrespective of its technological trappings—fortunately there is nothing in the film which is predicated on technical plausibility. Instead Bong takes it as an interesting microcosm, and uses it to explore some social themes as personal stories. The fact is, like the passengers in Snowpiercer, we are in a closed system, surrounded by a lethally inhospitable environment, going round and round forever—the allegory is a very direct analogue of the primary world, and Bong’s starting scenario is entirely plausible in social terms.
The film is a kind of fable of revolution. Perhaps it’s a deliberate reference to the most famous revolutions of all, the French and Russian, in both of which a popular liberation movement was subverted by a small minority to construct a new and equally repressive hierarchy. But it’s as much how it says it as what it says that makes it such a watchable and interesting film. It is a fable—and its fabulous character is always fronted, the screen filled with visually striking and symbolically saturated images. The performances are convincing, excellent even, the actors delivering their lines with great conviction, but this is a drama of archetypes, not a tissue of the particularities that make characters vivid, and that make us identify with them. We do identify with them, with their suffering, their need for justice, with the rigid, suffocating social hierarchy they inhabit, but we do so because we recognise our own world in theirs.
This is a slick, stylish movie, with something of a 1980s vibe to its aesthetics, but where its 80s equivalent might have looked like style over substance, there is never any doubt about the socially committed thrust of this narrative. Like Parasite, with which Bong won the first Best Picture Oscar to be awarded to a non-Anglophone flick, it has a lot of humour, moments of shocking brutality, and a relatively obvious allegorical theme at its heart. Both are fables, but Parasite looks less like a fable, presenting a surface of gritty naturalism, while Snowpiercer revels in its burnished, fantastical veneer. We don’t get to see much of the world outside the train, but the point might be to emphasise the artificiality of life inside it—and by implication, within twenty-first century consumer capitalism. In Parasite revolution is not on the table; in Snowpiercer it’s not seizing control that is the truly revolutionary act, but getting off the train altogether.