Exploring The Marxist Themes Behind Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’
(Spoilers for 2013’s ‘Snowpiercer’)
Netflix has just released the first episode of Snowpiercer, a series based on Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film of the same name. Judging from the series trailer, it looks to double down on the themes of the original, which already lays it on incredibly thick in its examination of Marxism.
After a botched attempt at solving global warming turned the world into a frozen wasteland, Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer centres around a train carrying the last vestige of humanity. The train is divided into different classes, with the ruling elite at the luxurious front and the undernourished poor at the rundown tail of the train. Chris Evans stars as Curtis Everett, the no-nonsense leader of a resistance looking to emancipate the poor from the tyrannical rule of the elite.
With how on-the-nose its themes are, it is perhaps one of the clearest films that illustrates the ideas of Marxism. In anticipation of how the 10 episode series will ultimately shape up, we explore some of the big ideas behind the Snowpiercer film and how it presents a rather pessimistic view of the possibility of breaking free from capitalism’s grip.
“Rich Bad Working Class Good”
Detailing the class struggle in France, Karl Marx wrote “revolutions are the locomotives of history”. Snowpiercer takes the quote rather literally, using much of the film’s plot as clear allegories to Marx’s ideas. The idea of class inequality should be familiar with most – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. But how and why is this so?
To sum it up very briefly, Marxism is a form of analysis that uses a materialist view (a focus on economic relations) to see the world. So while Marx literally wrote the book on communism, and that the ideology was arrived through Marxist analysis, Marxism can be separated from the sensitive C word. For example, his idea of historical materialism saw history as a product of economic relations and material conditions. This analysis also laid the basis for modern feminism and post-colonial studies.
Penning his ideas in the wake of industrialization, he divides society into two main classes – the proletariat, or working class, and the bourgeoisie, or the capitalists. Society could be further divided into this pyramid (which looks oddly similar to a certain art installation along Collyer Quay):
These different groups are rather blatantly detailed in Snowpiercer (especially if you turn that pyramid 90 degrees). However, there are some nuances in these divisions that the film does an excellent job in simplifying and reflecting.
For Marx, what separated the bourgeoisie from the proletariat is that the capitalists own the means of production, while the working class had to sell their labour to make a living. So the rich own the factories, farms and/or mines to manufacture goods to sell back to the proletariat… which the proletariat worked on in the first place.
Marx saw capitalism as essentially “digging its own grave” because the system was inherently flawed; the interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are essentially at odds with each other. The goal of all capitalists (and businesses, for that matter) is profit maximisation, with one key method through cutting costs and salaries. However, this creates a situation where there would be fewer and fewer able to purchase those profit-making goods, effectively self-cannibalising the economy.
Marx’s ideas, however, are far from the “rich bad working class good” narrative. For example, through historical materialism, he saw capitalism as just the next stage of history, with communism, or the absence of class, money and state, being the ultimate goal. Additionally, Marx was rather fond of capitalism, seeing how efficient the system could become in ushering the next stage of history.
Marx saw revolution as not only necessary but inevitable; something natural and beyond morality. Eventually, the working class is going to be too poor, too fed up and spark a revolution to remove the capitalist class since they have “nothing to lose but their chains” and everything to gain.
Snowpiercer Is About as Subtle as a Train on a Boat in a Tornado
Snowpiercer’s world does not have an economy. Each passenger in the train has been preordained to belong to each section, without the social movement that money could allow. The currency of their world is survival.
For Marx, the goal of the revolution is to seize the means of production, which is just a fancier way of saying the workers controlling the factories, mines and farms. Afterwards, there would be a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, where the working class would force society to move towards the abolishment of money and class. That was the plan, but history has shown that people tended to take the “dictatorship” part too literally.
Returning to the film, this idea is central to its plot. The poor in the tail end of Snowpiercer’s train get tired of their oppressive conditions and spark a rebellion. Soon, Curtis and his surprisingly scurvy-free band of rebels seize a water recycling plant – the universe’s “means of production” that would give them leverage in the negotiations with the elites.
Curtis eventually reaches the front of the train, where the Eternal Engine lies, tended by the train’s leader, Mr Wilford (Ed Harris). Wilford tries to convince Curtis that his revolution was all planned to cull the population, and that Curtis has to take over as the train’s leader to regulate its conditions.
Wilford almost succeeds before it is revealed that the poor – its children, in particular – have been taken away from their families to work on the engine. With some of its parts obsolete, only children are able to slip into its nooks and crannies to keep it running. Even in the money-less world of Snowpiercer, the exploitation of labour by the ruling class is still apparent.
“So where’s the revolution?”
That has been the question plaguing Marxist thinkers after Marx’s prediction turned out to be not so prophetic. Snowpiercer alludes to some of the reasons why.
Through historical materialism, Marx saw material relations as what shapes religion, education, art, etc. He believed that religion, for example, is a form of oppression fabricated by the ruling elites – “the opium of the people” – that had to be abolished.
Yet, despite Marx’s razor-sharp analysis and his enthusiasm of capitalism, revolutions only happened in under-industrialized societies (Russia, China) instead of those industrialised (Great Britain, Germany) where capitalism’s efficiency could be best felt.
Born in 1891 just a few years before Marx’s death, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci posited an influential idea – while in jail – as to why. Gramsci expands on historical materialism and suggests that why it never happened in those countries was because of the overwhelming success of its capitalists in using cultural institutions to pacify the masses through coercion and consent, creating “cultural hegemony”.
Snowpiercer illustrates both of these succinctly. “Coercion” comes with how the poor are practically neighbours to the lawbringers of the train, with frequent spot checks and public punishments to keep the masses fearfully in line.
“Consent” comes from how the values and rules that are favourable to the elites are dispersed to the masses through education, religion and media. This is seen in how the train’s second-in-command, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), elevates the train’s engine into something as eternal as God, and with how everything is part of a divine order that cannot be upset. Soon after she is captured, she is quick to betray Mr Wilson, suggesting that the train’s ‘religion’ is nothing more than an instrument of oppression that not even its leader would believe.
Similarly, the rebels’ journey through the train brings them to its school, where children from all over are indoctrinated to the train’s value system. Through music and a video that looks more like entertainment than education, they are taught to worship the train’s leader and the Eternal Engine, while being dissuaded from rebellion.
Still, although the revolution never truly materialised in our world, why did the one on the train somewhat succeed? How did the poor in Snowpiercer break from the grip of both coercion and consent?
Stuck Between Left and Right
Many have praised Snowpiercer for its simple yet effective use of linear visuals to supplement its plot. The film’s protagonists always move towards the right, heading to the front of the train. This creates a pace that naturally chugs along with a clear visually established end. Analysing a bit further, the left-right theme is also a clear allegory of the radical left and the conservative right – which makes the film’s conclusion all the more fiery when it’s revealed that both ends are in cahoots.
With the film visually trapped in two directions, this can also be interpreted as a response to Gramsci’s ideas. To combat the cultural hegemony, Gramsci suggested that the only way forward is for people to raise awareness for the cause through persuasion and propaganda amongst themselves.
Contemporary political thinker and neo-Gramscian Robert Cox holds a pessimistic response, suggesting that knowledge in itself cannot be objective or timeless exactly because of when, how, and why they arise. Even the ideas of rebellion and of breaking free are still confined within the borders of our time and our context; they will still inevitably perpetuate the current system.
Snowpiercer imagines this idea in two main ways. Firstly, the possibility of a successful usurpation is sparked by an ‘informer’, a figure that none of the rebels would expect given the limitations of what they understand and know. They are stuck in an “us versus them” mentality, and would have never thought that the whole rebellion was perpetuated by leaders from both sides to cull the population.
Secondly, early on in the film, the rebels save Minsu (Song Kang-Ho), the security architect of the train, and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) from their prison cells, requiring their help to open the various gates separating the sections.
While the rest of the characters focus on what’s on the left and right, Minsu takes every opportunity to drag his daughter towards the windows to gaze at the world outside – his mind and plans are beyond the confines of the train.
Both ends of the train look to use rebellions as forms of social control to maintain the optimal conditions for life. To paraphrase contemporary Marxists Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, it was easier for them to imagine the end of the world than it was for them to imagine the end of the system.
Meanwhile, Mingsu saw the possibility of life beyond, looking to blow up the train – their tyrannical world – to start a new one.
Same As It Ever Was
Snowpiercer seemingly uses Marx’s quote about locomotives as a starting point to explore why he was wrong about his predictions; a complete systemic change is hardly as straightforward as he thought. Rather, the film cheekily twists it to show that, yes, the locomotive is indeed carrying humanity forward – but in an unceasing, self-sufficient circle.
While the train does blow up by the film’s end, there is an overwhelming sense of pessimism that comes with it. Curtis was ready to take over Wilson’s job in regulating the train’s ecosystem through manipulation of events and continued class segregation. It was only when Yona – implied to be clairvoyant – reveals that children are working beneath the train’s floors that causes Curtis to change his mind. Living in the train came at a price that Curtis could no longer bear to perpetuate.
It takes the outright supernatural to break from the linear left and right, unveiling something below them, for progress to happen. It takes the downtrodden from all around the world (led by Captain America) to unite towards a common goal for progress to happen. Much like Parasite, Bong punctuates the film’s end with an implausible note that is more bittersweet than optimistic.
Snowpiercer is a great action film that uses its themes to tremendous effect. While they are definitely heavy-handed, it is one of the best entry points for anybody wanting to understand Marxist ideas – especially with the world’s system currently cracking under the weight of an unprecedented pandemic.
It would be interesting to see the differences between the film and the series adaptation – especially with Bong on helm as an executive producer. Perhaps something even more fiery, even more urgent, but definitely a series that is bound to be compelling.
The first episode of the Snowpiercer series is now available for streaming on Netflix.
Meanwhile, the 2013 film is available for rental on Amazon.
– Psychosinematics: Examining the Destruction of Mother and Son in Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Mother’
– An Abridged Initiation to Modern South Korean Cinema
– A Marriage of Sounds, Pictures and Ideas – A Brief Introduction to Analysing Films