Snowpiercer (설국열차, Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

“Control the engine, control the world” insists the revolutionary mastermind at the centre of Bong Joon-ho’s first English language feature Snowpiercer (설국열차, Seolgungnyeolcha), quite literally meaning to seize the means of production. Adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Bong’s near future dystopia locates itself in a world both ruined and perhaps saved by human hubris, but salvation is a prize offered only to those who can pay, or at least make themselves “useful” to its mysterious and invisible creator, here an engineer both mechanical and social who controls the engine which moves the world yet insists on an order which is far from divine. 

In the near future, humanity’s attempts to repair the damage it has done through manmade climate change by releasing a manmade gas into the atmosphere have backfired to such a degree that the surface of the Earth has become a frozen wasteland no longer able to support life. The only remaining living creatures survive aboard a high tech, ironically eco-friendly train designed for luxurious cruising which cheerfully connects all the world’s railways as one, looping the globe in international solidarity. As such, the train is a self sustaining eco system, a world entire filled with orchards and aquariums where the rich can enjoy all the pleasures of the Earth, but far in the back, segregated from those whose place on the train is assured, is an underclass of stowaways who are denied such luxuries and are largely controlled through fear and starvation with gelatinous protein bars their only form of sustenance. 

“Know your place” the sinister Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) insists, explaining that they owe their lives only to the “order” the train provides and that therefore they must each serve it by embracing the role they have been assigned. This last instruction is becoming increasingly hard to bear for those trapped in the back of the train with little to no prospect of improving their lot. There have been rebellions before but all have failed. Curtis (Chris Evans), a reluctant leader, his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), and their mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) are planning another insurrection, certain that the power of the men who guard them is now illusionary because the weapons they carry have been rendered purely decorative. When a child is taken from the rear for unclear reasons, the plan is put into action with Curtis leading a charge towards the front, encouraged by mysterious messages from a secret collaborator somewhere further up the train, and assisted by a Korean tech expert (Song Kang-ho) responsible for designing the train’s security systems and his psychic daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung). 

Later we discover that failed revolution is another means of maintaining “balance” as synonymous with the order that the mysterious engineer Wilford (Ed Harris) provides. Rebellion keeps the population numbers in the back down and engenders the kind of despair that ensures docility at least for a time. There is something distinctly dust bowl in the train’s design from its art deco aesthetics to its wholesome brand of political indoctrination as neatly dressed children sit around the harmonium and are told of Wilford’s greatness by a prim schoolteacher while taught to fear and hate those from the rear. Curtis and his compatriots aren’t merely fighting for freedom and equality but to regain the humanity they fear the system has stolen from them. Recounting a grim tale of how Gilliam lost his limbs, Curtis laments that he too wanted to sacrifice an arm for his fellow man but he couldn’t do it. He never wanted to lead a revolution and is insecure in his vision. Tempted by Wilford, he is no longer sure if he came here to destroy “order” or merely to own it. 

Wilford’s ’30s-style ultracapitalist fascism justifies itself under the rationale that without “leadership” the people devour each other, which is disingenuous seeing as, as in Parasite, Snowpiercer’s true horror is the insidiousness of the system which forces one oppressed person to oppress another through enforced inequality. Wilford insists on “balance”, on everything having its place, but there can be no balance in a world in which a chosen few enjoy untold riches while the masses starve. The chosen few don’t even seem to be very happy, mindlessly swallowing sushi and burying themselves in hedonistic pleasures to escape the fear and emptiness of their lives. Curtis is presented with a choice, become a part of the system which, quite literally, eats its young, or make the sacrifice he couldn’t make before and become the spanner in the works. Yet the choice is only partly his, the means to reshape the world comes from an unexpected direction and is as dependent on faith as Wilford’s insistence on the divinity of industry, but when the great machine grinds to a halt those who walk free of it may find that faith repaid.


Snowpiercer is available on UK blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate.

UK Release trailer

A Resistance (항거:유관순 이야기, Joe Min-ho, 2019)

A Resistance poster 1March 1, 2019 marked the centenary of the Korean Independence Movement which began with a peaceful protest on 1st March, 1919 that was brutally put down by Japanese forces who fired on innocent protestors killing thousands and imprisoning many more. One of the key leaders of the protest was a teenage girl, Yu Gwan-sun, who died in prison a little over a year later aged just 17. Joe Min-ho’s A Resistance (항거:유관순 이야기, Hanggeo: Yu Gwan-sun Iyagi) is the story of her struggle in which she remains defiant in the face of unfair and inhuman treatment at the hands of her Japanese captors.

The film opens with Gwan-sun (Go Ah-sung) being roughly pulled off a cart, unable to see thanks to the straw hat placed over her face. When the mask is removed for her prison registration card photo, we can see that (just as in the real photo which still exists and is on display in the Seodaemun Prison History Museum) her left eye and cheek are swollen from a previous beating. Taken inside, she is led to women’s cell 8 and shocked to see 24 other women already standing inside it when the door opens. There isn’t even enough room to sit down, and so the women have to take turns to rest, walking endlessly in circles to try and prevent their legs cramping up from standing too long in the same place.

On her first meeting with the prison warden who is surprised she has received such a comparatively long sentence (5 years, reduced to 3 on appeal), she is reminded that her best chance for survival is to keep her head down and do as she’s told. Gwan-sun intends to do just that but finds herself constantly infuriated by the injustice of the prison guards and the inhumane conditions in which the political prisoners are kept. Most of the women in the cell with Gwan-sun are there solely for having been at the protests and supposedly shouting “Manse”, they have committed no other crime save refusing to accept the primacy of Japanese authority.

The trouble starts when the women burst into a chorus of Arirang – a patriotic Korean folk song, which proves intolerable to the guards and gets Gwan-sun inducted for her first bout of extreme torture at the hands of her block warden and a Korean recruit working for the Japanese, Nishida (Ryu Kyung-soo). From a poor background, Nishida has thrown his lot in with the Japanese hoping for advancement but is unable to see that to them he will always be just another Korean minion to be discarded when no longer useful. Though he seems conflicted when directly ordered to participate in the torture of Gwan-sun, who is after all a defenceless 16-year-old girl, which involves acts of sexual humiliation and insidious violence, he fails to resist and dutifully obeys the orders of his Japanese commander.

Though her primary goal is Korean Independence, Gwan-sun is also working to end the kind of class oppression which has pushed Nishida into the arms of the Japanese. This much she reminds one of her cellmates (Jeong Ha-dam) who worries it would be inappropriate for them to be friends because she is just an uneducated woman working in a coffeeshop. Another of her cellmates is a “famous” gisaeng who finds herself looked down on by some of the other women because of her participation in sex work. Inspired by a real life character, Kim Hwang-hwa (Kim Sae-byuk) was another key figure in the Independence Movement who began mobilising gisaeng to participate in the protests, motivated by the often cruel treatment they received from Japanese customers. The coffee shop girl laments that if she were a man she’d go to Manchuria or fly around the world. Kim Hwang-hwa reminds her there’s nothing stopping a woman from doing that anyway and eventually ends up in Manchuria herself looking for the Independence Movement in exile in Shanghai. 

Despite emphasising the solidarity of the women in prison, Joe’s retelling of Yu Gwan-sun’s last days perhaps misses an opportunity to explore the important role that women played in the Independence Movement or the various ways it intersected with early feminism and progressive socialist politics. Nevertheless it does its best to pay tribute to a brave woman who suffered terribly in the belief that a better world was possible, refusing to give in even at the very end.


A Resistance screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Office (오피스, Hong Won-chan, 2015)

office posterThe pressure cooker society threatens to explode in Hong Won-chan’s Office (오피스). The writer of recent genre hits The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, Hong has long experience of examining those living on the edge but in his directorial debut he takes things one step further in depicting an entire society running to keep up with itself, furiously chasing its own tail with barely suppressed rage. Not so much survival of the fittest as survival of the least scrupulous, the world of Office is the one in which the mad become the most sane, escaping the constraints of corporate oppression through social revenge but taking the innocent along with them.

Salaryman Byun-guk (Bae Seong-woo) has the soulless eyes of one whose dreams have already died. Dejectedly he sits alone at a coffee shop before cramming himself into the commuter train home where he sits, silently, among his busy family. They wonder why he hasn’t changed out of his suit, shed his corporate persona for his familial one, but when Byung-guk gets up he returns brandishing a hammer which he then, as if in a trance, uses to bludgeon to death his loving wife, disabled son, and senile mother.

Byun-guk flees the scene of crime and is loose somewhere in the city. The police search his office for clues but his colleagues have already come up with their unified version of events, keeping the company out of it by claiming that they all loved Byun-guk and are shocked that he could have done something so horrifying. Meanwhile, intern Mi-rae (Go Ah-sung), who regarded Byun-guk as her only friend in the office, is upset but perhaps not quite so shocked. Excluded from the interoffice cliquery, no one has thought to brief Mi-rae on the party line leaving her a prime target for police inspector Choi (Park Sung-woong).

Byun-guk and Mi-rae are two of a piece – members of the upright and hardworking lower classes who have done everything right but somehow have never been accepted by their peers. Mi-rae, an ordinary girl from Gwangju who worked to lose her accent in her teens dreaming of the high life in Seoul, is shy and mousy but works hard – harder than anyone, to prove herself worthy of Seoul’s unrealistic demands. Her colleagues, privileged, confident, and also harried, do not forgive her for this. They find her earnestness “creepy”, her desire to succeed “suspicious”. Cruelly taken down a peg or two by a colleague taking out her own frustrations on the office nobody, another tries to comfort her with some advice – don’t try so hard, you make us all look bad and we wonder what your need is hiding. Mi-rae isn’t really hiding anything save her slowly fragmenting mental state and the overwhelming need to be accepted to a club that, in truth, is not open to people like her who value their integrity and still believe deep down that working hard and being honest are the only paths to true success.

Korean society, it seems, has become a giant chain of screaming. Byun-guk has been repeatedly passed over for promotion despite being the most reliable employee in the office but his ineffectual boss is overly wedded to the shouting school of business management. Faced with results he doesn’t like, Byun-guk’s boss picks someone to shout at to make them better but offers no further guidance. Railing at the police for not doing their job as if screaming will some how provoke major results even outside of the office, the boss can’t know that police also have their own chain of screaming and Choi has his own boss already taking care of that side of things, demanding results rather than truth or justice.

The meek are taking their inheritance ahead of schedule, but their revenge is born both of societal corruption and rejection. People like Byun-guk and Mi-rae, who are quiet, honest, kind but perhaps not good with people, become the bugs in a system which simultaneously holds them up as essential cogs. Those who cannot just pretend, grease the wheels with superficial social niceties, and accepted their place in the chain of screaming in order to climb further up it are condemned to wander idly around its lower levels going quietly mad until, perhaps, the system crushes them or else collapses.


International trailer (English subtitles)