by Carole McDonnell
Snowpiercer Director, Bong Joon-ho; Screenwriters, Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson. English-language; Released, August 1, 2013; 126 minutes, Moho Films, Opus Pictures.
The one scene in the Korean dystopian film Snowpiercer that I found most chilling, although some folks might disagree with me, is a scene where a sushi expert (with the blinders and focus of one dedicated to his craft) creates a sushi roll. It’s a calm scene — one of the few non-action-packed scenes in a film that is pretty much all momentum from start to finish. And while so little is said or done in this mini episode — or train car — the scene (and what it represents) stays with me because it sums up so much about what the filmmaker wishes to say about humans, the small and great purposes we give to our lives, and the little niches in society we are glad to belong to. All of which takes place while we are blind to all else happening in the greater world.
Just as The Matrix was a reflection of the angst of its time, Snowpiercer is a mirror of the early twenty-first century. Except that — to me anyway — The Matrix always seemed to honor and trust humanity against the machinations of the grinding homogenization of the big bad. Snowpiercer is way more cynical about humanity, humanity’s desire for meaning, and humanity’s smug belief in itself.
The film is based on a French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette. I’m not sure how closely the film follows the graphic novel. There is an Asian Buddhist sensibility that I recognize from my love of Korean films. But there might also be a European existentialism behind some of its images.
Snowpiercer is full of images and metaphors. The over-riding one — yes, I know… a bad pun — is, of course, the symbol of a train going on and on in circles, over the same long, cyclical track. And for the most part, each of the train’s cars represents a subset or philosophy or aspect of human life. But it is not only philosophy. Like all good scifi, there is violence, a good plot, and a wonderful cast of characters who help to make this intellectual exercise fun.
The protagonists include Curtis, the revolutionary leader (played by Chris Evans); Namgoong Minsu, a Korean engineer who helped create the Snowpiercer and who is now imprisoned in it (played by the great Song Kang-ho); Yona, his clairvoyant daughter (Go Ah-sung); Gilliam, another Snowpiercer creator who has also been demoted (John Hurt); and Tanya as a passionate freedom fighter and er… Black Mother (played by Octavia Spencer). I’ll go easy on the Tanya warrior Black Woman character because, a mother-figure/angry black woman is pretty much expected in a film about oppression and because a film about the end of the world needs at least one Black main character in it. Besides, the Korean director does make the importance of race somewhat important at the end of the film.
The antagonists are Wilford, the worshiped Creator of the Snowpiercer; Minister Mason, Wilford’s mouthpiece; and countless minions who are dedicated to the hierarchy that has evolved over the seventeen years on this train.
The train is all that is left of humanity in a future time. Yet, like all good scifi, it tells us about our present — in this case, the film shows us our modern-day mechanthromorphic human philosophy: we are part of a whole, and must find our place and fit into the whole. We play our mechanical part, get substituted for other parts which have failed or run-down, and — if we do not fit into the great cosmic machine — we are tossed away.
Philosophies rise out of cultural upheavals and social needs, so of course a philosophy arises from the fact that the remnant of humanity is housed in a train. Just as some people in our times have a kind of electromorphic spirituality — “God as a kind of force” — so the humans on Snowpiercer use the train to understand and explain their world. Remnants have to work with all they have.
There is the film as a whole, the film as parts, and the film as the sum of the whole’s parts. The visuals, plots, cinematography, choreography, and plot of this film are all excellent. I really don’t want to spoil the film for you so I’ll just say that this film challenges so many of our dearly-held and deeply-loathed ideas about politics, ourselves, money, hierarchy, talent, and revolution, that as the revolutionaries go from car to car a film viewer might praise the filmmaker at one moment (because she thinks the filmmaker is on her side) and in the next moment be insulted. No philosophy or lifestyle is safe from Snowpiercer’s insightful analysis.
The film begins with the environmental issue and the arrogance of science. Global warming is everywhere. Humans believe they know the answer and the answers of well-intentioned scientists only cause more trouble with their so-called answers. In the film, scientists get a brilliant idea to stop the climate change. One of the spiritual motifs of this film is balance, yin and yang, and the idea of past-present-future melding into cyclicality. So, of course, the scientists totally screw up by creating an equal and opposite disaster. The world becomes irrevocably frozen. (I’m not giving away any spoiler here. This messing up of nature occurs in the first fifteen minutes of the film.)
Luckily for the very few, a train has been provided for… well… the very few. These are folks who had money, power, hierarchy and status to pay for a place on this train. But, as we all know, human plans often go awry because humans — especially those who trust in their own knowledge — are like sheep without a shepherd: confused, willful, self-confident and heading for a cliff. Yep, the train tracks tend to often ride alongside cliffs.
The fly in the ointment, the great spiritual unforeseen, are the large amount of folks who were not accounted for and who did not fit into the grand scheme of the train’s planners. These folks — who could be equated with illegal migrants — are the train’s great unwashed. They are poor and undifferentiated by the powers that be.
Well, maybe once in a while they can be made to fit into the plans of the powers-that-be. But for the most part, they live in a state of oppression aiming for the day when revolution arrives. Revolution pretty much means getting to the head of the train. Although… well, what one should do after one brings down the powers that be is unclear.
The mass of uninvited, non-paying folks who were graciously “allowed” to escape the cold world and to enter the rich folks’ train are all in the back of the train. They are separated from the front of the train by miles and miles and miles of car. Now I don’t want to get too spoilery, so I will only say that a leader rises up from the masses and the revolutionaries slowly attempt to make it to the front where Wilford, the Genius Creator of the Train lives.
Each car has to be breached, of course. The Big Bads are not going to make it easy for the poor to disrupt the spiritual cosmic order of things. And this is where the biggest fun in Snowpiercer comes in, because each car is a commentary on some habit, aspect, or philosophy of the modern world. Wilford’ mechanistic philosophy is found throughout. And all beings on the train and all the train cars fit into the general purpose like cogs, tongues, and groove of this train-morphic society. So beginning with the car filled with the collective unwashed, we encounter other cars that show the filmmakers take on our own present world.
There is for instance the military. The military is in the back of the train. They are not as badly off as folks in the back end but neither are they and their individuality important. They are used to keep the lower classes down. This is their deluded purpose, which they do extremely well. Some great fighting scenes there!
Each car represents another aspect of modern life. There are, for instance, the cars that represent food systems. The food for the poor is pretty bad. I won’t tell you what it is. I will only say that it is pretty much manufactured and that the person who has been trapped into making the food for the masses has gotten used to his production and is really rather proud of his craft and his ability to feed the masses. He has, after all, found his purpose and is now a great cog in the wheel of life. His counterpart is the sushi cook I mentioned before. The sushi maker who made chills run down my spine. The one who is so fixed on the delicate art of creating cuisine for the wealthy front of the train. Yes, that one. Even the pretensions of the foodie world are given a spiritual challenge. Not only because foodies are having delicacies while the rest of the world is poor, but because foodies are so gosh-dang smug in their pretension to “class” and elitism.
Elitism, intellectualism, hedonism — whether nature walks, aquariums, gardens, saunas, dance clubs, leisure drugs — all are shown as pitiful, smug, escapist distractions. No ism is safe.
There is one car, for instance, with an elementary class teacher who is the embodiment of the conservative nostalgic ideal of purity. But after a while we see that teachers are idealistic tools who are created by the powers that be. The perfect teacher is one who indoctrinates her students with the beliefs of the hierarchy. So education should be distrusted as well. As are media sound bytes. And powerful women are no different than powerful men.
The film pretty much challenges everything we hold dear. Even revolutionaries should be distrusted. The protagonist has the heart of a true revolutionary, but — like Lenin and Castro, he will do anything for the cause. But the Big Bad, Wilford is just as committed to his ideals as everyone else.
The film shows that mankind will turn anything into a god, and any necessity into a virtue, and will sacrifice anything and anyone for the greater good. Whether it’s narcissism, or addiction to perfecting one’s craft, or even spiritual “enlightened” habits such as meditation, the mechanistic philosophy doesn’t work because it prevents one from looking outside one’s own car. In fact, those who pride themselves on their ability to enter into meditative silence are just disconnected to other people and as deluded as the artistic focused elitist who have the luxury of being special craftsmen. The niche is a great deception. Finding one’s place in the world helps even the artist forget the oppressed. And we all should be very careful of what satisfies us.
It’s a good movie. I know there are some folks who dislike the ending, but personally I like it. It’s a serious ending because, well… we don’t know if humanity will endure. But it’s also a tongue in cheek ending. Plus I’ve always liked Korea’s obsession with noona romances. And if you don’t know what a noona romance is, I won’t tell you. You’re on the internet; Google it.
Dark Eden is anthropological scifi, one of my favorite sub-genres. Give me a primitive world, a hardy bunch of hunter-gatherers, humans stuck in alien, hostile territory, AND theological implications… and I’m in book heaven.
Anthropological scifi is fun because of the world-building, especially when we see the power of a culture that has been stripped from its moorings — moorings which we understand and which the book’s characters understand in their own way.
For me, speculative fiction is at its best when we’re placed in a “What if?” scenario. We get to see the ramifications of the “what ifs” and how stuff we take for granted are affected by that great “what if” proposition.
So then, imagine a white Adam from London and a black Eve from Brooklyn, stranded on a dark, icy planet, awaiting rescue. Rescue seems delayed so they have children in the natural course of events. They tell these children about the world they came from — their true home, which will come to rescue them one day. The children and their subsequent (often mutated because they are inbred) generations hold on to these oral traditions of this great hope of being returned to their true home. The complications of this “what if” get larger and larger. And I’m not just talking about how one describes a spaceship. That’s easy enough: It’s a boat in the starry swirl sea above!
But other stuff is not so easy. And the big question: What if Earth doesn’t come back for them?
The Family —532 descendants of Angela and Jerry, our Adam and Eve fitures— have heard this and other stories. But after 163 years, the rescuers still haven’t come. Food is getting sparse and Family is expanding into sub-clans. Should Family just pack up and move from Forest, the little patch of land where Earth is supposed to return to? And didn’t mother Angela tell them never to leave that spot?
The book is told in first person POV chapters and there are several narrators. The main protagonist is John Redlantern who — yes — has that revolutionist, idealist gleam in his eyes. He is different. He thinks family should just up and explore past the dark mountains. But hey, he is also in his teens; years are counted as “wombtimes” because there is no sun to mark day and night on this planet. Of course, he ends up leaving and we see each narrator’s reaction to the upheaval in Family.
The language and worldbuilding in this book are excellent. How would humans name objects that are similar to but not the same as things on earth? Dark Eden has different flora and fauna than earth so the naming is often approximate. For instance, on Dark Eden there are lantern trees which are geothermal and pump hot sap from the ground” and there are “leopards.” The lantern trees are not like earth trees but they do rise out of the earth and have “seeds.” And “leopards” have spots, although these spots shimmer and move with a bio-luminescence.
After a while, one intuitively begins to understand Family’s language, which sounds like British middle-class English and patois. (The repetition of an adjective to describe extremes — “dark dark,” “pretty pretty,” for instance — is also used in Jamaican patois.) To have sex with someone, for instance, is described as “to slip with” which makes sense to us Earthers because it is obviously a declension of “to sleep with.” But it also makes sense to the Family as “to slip in and out of” someone. The author is new at coining words, and it’s not that the book is meant to be a puzzle but you’ll have to muddle through a bit; you might not fully understand what a “leopard” looks like or what trees on Dark Eden actually look like.
While we are on the subject of “slipping” with folks, morals are different in Dark Eden. Angela, bless her soul, tried to teach her descendants about morals. A man should never slip with his daughter or with any girl younger than he is, for instance. The Family must never “do for” anyone. I.e., no one should murder each other or cause someone to be “done for.” There is no talk of God but Angela did tell her descendants that Jesus was the King of the Juice. (We get the feeling that Angela wasn’t too bright.) It doesn’t help matters that “juice” is the word for semen in this book.
The history of how Angela and Jerry came to be lost on Dark Eden is told over and over at Any Virsry. This history — with its conversations, actions, parts, episodes — is the Family’s Bible, their oral tradition that holds them together, the guide for their lives. When a challenge is presented to the community, the question often is: “What would Angela do?”
This makes the novel come very close to being a parable, which could make a few folks uncomfortable. What is this book saying about Oral Tradition? (and in a subtle way, about the gospels, since the gospels — according to some — were oral traditions?) And what is the mix of truth and misunderstanding? What is the purpose of story? To inspire? To change? To lock us into tradition? What if the story has elements of conservatism and revolution in them? When do you decide what to choose? When do you revolt against Elders and their interpretation of the lore? When do you listen to them? Should you stay in a static place awaiting rescue from the sky or should you move on from the old doctrine? Or is the old doctrine really about moving on?
As I read, I enjoyed the full-on speculative game the author was playing and I can’t say the writer set out to challenge the Garden of Eden Biblical narrative. There are only a few lines which seem to dig at religion. And I sensed a kind of arrogance as if the author felt proud of himself for being an honest seeker after truth who has struggled with the quandary of faith. So there were smug places in the novel and I often felt that if a person of faith had written this same story with the same premise, there would have been more positive aspects about traditional religious storytelling. There are some insights the religious come up with that atheists just tend to miss.
And yet, the working out of the premise of Dark Eden is done so well, with so many fine and wonderful details that I can’t be too angry with it. No doubt, atheists will use this book to show how wise they are in their opinions. Some might even use this book to mock religious people. But I don’t think this is what the author fully intends.
This is the beginning of a series so who knows where the author will go? Does he intend to mirror other events in human and Biblical history? We already have the makings of tribes and as the book ends. There are hints of tribal warfare afoot. And no doubt there will be linguistic changes as the series continues. So, right now, I can’t make any decisions about the author’s feelings about faith, about how humanity comes to believe in a god or many gods, or even if Family will have a female or male deity or a deity of any kind. I don’t know if they will develop a religion or what kind of religion it will be.
At present there are some heavy-duty coincidences in this book. So I did wonder why. Why was it hero John Redlantern who found a certain relic? Why did the adventurous group from Family find what they found? Was it just by chance? Was it providential guidance from a god? Should I care about all those coincidences? Or is it just a writer doing the easy stuff and creating coincidences to further the story’s plot? We shall see.
Before I get into this book, let me just say that I’ve always loved the idea of anarchy. Well, anarchy lite. The Powers that Be undone, all national laws crumbled, wealth destroyed and everyone starting at zero with a clean slate and clean but empty plate. I suppose many people do. Because the world has gotten unwieldy. The villains of bureaucracy, banking, and government are too far away. In a way, this is also the same impulse behind my love of tribal fantasy. Life may not be easier in pagan or anthropological fantasy but the foes we battle are at least near to us.
But anarchy lite is generally hard to come by — unless one lives on an island in the middle of nowhere or unless there’s been a zombie apocalypse. Real anarchy (especially if it occurred in a large urban area) would probably involve a whole mess of messy people. The people one finds in western apocalyptic stories are usually of the Mad Max variety. Of course, it is possible that wholesale destruction in the west might be a polite affair. Remember how well-mannered the folks in Fukushima were after the nuclear meltdown? And if there was looting, murdering, raping, and mayhem after Hiroshima, I haven’t heard of it. The west, on the other hand, is full of stories about how we folks in the US would behave if governments, banks, law, and all infrastructure failed.
At first, The End, My Friend, feels realistic. Tony and his girlfriend are trying to make it to the safe rural areas of Oregon — the place I imagine when I day dream of anarchy-lite. But they have to go through the badlands of California where skeezy, skeevy, tough guys, await them at every turn. Who can they trust? It all seems like a fictional presentation of what would probably happen if the United States fell apart. There are no new scientific technologies, there are no aliens. This is futuristic but it’s not scifi. Instead, there are Black markets everywhere, militias, warlords, martial law, monetary and currency issues. But then, the author does something I personally do not like. Note: I do not say Wright does anything wrong. He simply dives headlong into a genre I really have a problem with. Think Mad Max meets Sin City. Which is cool except that the only thing I like hard-boiled are my eggs. I like the book but I would’ve liked it more if the characters had felt more like “real” folks instead of ultra-cool hipsters. The book was a Finalist for the 2014 San Diego Book Awards and Kirby Wright has received many writing awards. Recommended.
The Midnight After; 2014 Horror; Director, Fruit Chani; Based on the web-novel, Lost on a Red Mini Bus to Taipo by “Mr. Pizza”
Let me get this out first and foremost: this story has absolutely no meaning. And there are no answers to the mystery either. Admittedly, that’s a bit of a spoiler but trust me: if you were to endure this moving on the vague hope that it would all come together meaningfully in the end, you wouldn’t enjoy it. Best to just watch this horror flick as a tongue-in-cheek comedy — a tongue-in-cheek comedy that often satirizes modern Chinese politics — than to fall into the trap of thinking of it as a scifi-mystery.
The story begins with seventeen people in Hong Kong who are taking a minibus trip to Tai Po. They enter a tunnel and when they exit it, all the people in the world seem to have disappeared. Why? they wonder. Are they alive? Are they dead? Is this a global happening? And who or what is stalking them? Think Final Destination, The Wall, Langoliers, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Then there is the alien message where the alien uses David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Or is it really an alien? And does it matter?
I really can’t give away the plot because there really is no plot per se. Our hero, Chi, searches for his girlfriend, Yuki worries about her boyfriend, a religious businesswoman awaits aliens from another planet, a few of our seventeen survivors die from being exposed to poison. There’s talk of Fukushima and radiation poisoning. There is a hilarious and grim communal execution of a rapist. There are flashbacks galore which give us character history but doesn’t explain why these seventeen were the only one’s spared. And through-it-all, there is dead-pan matter-of-fact humor. It’s fun, it’s fluff — at least to easterners like me who don’t get the point of the satire — and it’s meaningless. Recommended for a fun afternoon.
Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.