At long last, the acclaimed post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer is coming to select U.S. theaters this weekend. We were lucky enough to sit down with director Bong Joon-ho for an exclusive interview, and he unraveled the movie's themes and the reasons for its unique visual style.
Note: We talked to Bong Joon-ho through an interpreter.
Snowpiercer, based on the French graphic novel, takes place after a new Ice Age has overtaken the world. The only survivors of humanity are on board a massive train that's a whole self-contained environment, constantly in motion around the world. And this highly stratified society is incredibly oppressive for the people in the tail section, including Curtis (Chris Evans) who plots with Gilliam (John Hurt) to rise up and take over the train from the oppressors, played by Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris among others. To this end, they bust out a drug-addicted locksmith named Nam (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter.
Why the violence in the film looks so stylized and insane
Snowpiercer has a lot of violence in it, but it's there to reinforce the notion of a tight, claustrophobic space where people are fighting as well as stepping on each other, said Bong. He thought of this as being a more primitive type of violence.
With the "narrow, long and straight" structure of the environment on the train, with some people trying to go forward and other people trying to block them from going forward, "it's inevitable that there will be head-to-head collision," says Bong. "It's unavoidable."
He felt that this would lead to a "very dynamic energy," and everything would be "very physical," and "the violence would be very explosive and close-range." He tried to push the limits, especially in the film's axe-battle and the big fight in the sauna section. "There are no laser guns, it's just body to body, with axes."
A lot of the film's visual style is aimed at showing the futility of Curtis' journey
The film plays a lot with light and darkness, with the shining landscape outside slowly being revealed to the characters as they travel forwards to the part of the train that has more windows.
I asked Bong what this slowly encroaching light symbolizes to him, and he responded that the whole film is about Curtis' journey, and a lot of the visuals in the film are meant to convey that Curtis (Chris Evans) is physically moving forward to the front of the train — but his heart is stuck in the rear of the train, as he's trapped in his memories of things that happened 17 years ago.
And without getting too deep into spoiler territory, Bong says the film is about Curtis traveling from one father figure to another: from John Hurt to Ed Harris. But in the end, this journey isn't what it appears to be, and "going from the dark tail section to the light front section is yet another cycle," says Bong. "When the end and the front are linked, it establishes yet another frustration for the character."
Bong took almost nothing from the graphic novel
The world of the Snowpiercer comic is very different than Bong's movie — in the comic, there's a whole political establishment, including a President and military leaders, and a complex society, and none of this is in the movie. The comic also includes the fear of disease spread from the impoverished rear of the train to the front. And it's revealed early in the comic that the train's engine is starting to slow down, meaning all the passengers are probably doomed unless something drastic is done.
Bong says he took almost nothing from the graphic novel, apart from the "key idea" of the survivors of a frozen apocalypse surviving aboard a train. "Everything else had to be changed, and that was the approach from the very beginning," says Bong. He didn't pick and choose which elements to keep from the graphic novel, he just threw out all of it.
The notion that the train's engine is slowing down is an interesting one, but it conflicts with one of Bong's key ideas — that the train in Snowpiercer takes exactly a year to circle the globe, passing the same landmarks on the same dates, and this is how people reckon the passage of time. So the train is almost like a giant calendar or clock, and every year when you pass one spot, everyone says "Happy New Year." This was one of the first ideas that Bong came up with, and it wouldn't work if the engine was slowing down.
This idea of the train being a calendar opened up a lot of other ideas for Bong, which wound up changing the story a lot from what was in the comic.
Is there a Terry Gilliam shoutout in this film?
John Hurt's character is named Gilliam, and some of the weird oppressive visuals are very reminiscent of some of Terry Gilliam's films, especially Brazil. But while Bong is a fan of Brazil, he doesn't consider it much of an influence on this film — this was his first English-language film, so he had a hard time naming the characters, he said. He just reached for names of famous directors and other people from American films to come up with the names.
The biggest enemy of the environment
I asked if the environmental disasters in both The Host and Snowpiercer are Bong's way of showing that humans are doomed to wreck our own habitat. Bong responded that it's not humans per se, but capitalism that's destroying the environment. So if we could control human greed, that would go a long way towards slowing down our ongoing environmental disaster. And Bong points out that the formaldehyde being dumped in the water in The Host is something that actually happened in Korea.
Science fiction lends itself to political questions
Bong says that the science fiction genre lends itself perfectly to questions about class struggle, and different types of revolution. Is it more revolutionary to want to take control of the society that's oppressed you, or to try and escape from that system altogether? The Korean character whom Curtis rescues, Nam, is not concerned with Curtis' ideas of class struggle, and turns out to have ideas that are "above" Curtis', says Bong.