'Snowpiercer' is possibly pointless, but that's the point

Chris Evans in the movie version of 'Snowpiercer'.

French graphic novel-turned-movie Snowpiercer is a good read and an entertaining watch.

SNOWPIERCER’S road to pop culture has been a long, strange journey. It began as a French graphic novel that South Korean director Bong Joon-ho loved, so he turned it into a 125-minute movie with an international cast – and dialogue that was 80% English. And that cast really is something. In addition to South Korean actors Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-Sung (The Host), Snowpiercer stars Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Chris Evans (Captain America), Tilda Swinton (Chronicles Of Narnia), Ed Harris (The Right Stuff) and John Hurt (everything from Alien to V For Vendetta).

And apparently it’s good. Harvey Weinstein bought the American distribution rights after a special screening at the Berlin Film Festival, and Snowpiercer received five nominations from the Asian Film Awards. The film has already earned US$60mil (RM196mil) from its South Korean release, and is scheduled to open in China this month.

But the movie’s US release ran into a snag, according to variety.com: Weinstein wanted to cut 20 minutes out and the director demurred. Eventually a compromise was reached, whereby Weinstein won’t cut the film, but it will receive only limited release. Someday.

I suppose it’s only fitting that Snowpiercer the movie has a strange and possibly pointless journey, because that’s essentially what the graphic novel is about!

Snowpiercer 1: The Escape tells the story of all surviving life after a cataclysm that plunges the planet into sub-zero temperatures, living on a train that rolls endlessly with no destination. 

Snowpiercer 1: The Escape, which shipped in January, is the story of the remnants of humanity after a cataclysm has frozen the Earth entirely – temperatures remain below 100° below zero, except where those remnants live. Which is on a train.

And not just any train. The luxury liner Snowpiercer, according to advertising before the cataclysm, was to run non-stop on its own tracks with everything on board that you could want – food (grown or raised on board), drinks, drugs, sex. The train’s 1,001 carriages are pulled by a perpetual-motion machine, which gets its energy from the train’s own movement, provided the train keeps moving. And it is uniquely adapted to plowing through ice and snow because ...

... well there’s no good answer for that. The Snowpiercer just happened to be precisely suited to survive the kind of cataclysm that occurred, ready and waiting for the elite to board her – and survive. How convenient!

That might have been the plan (we never find out) but if it was, the lower classes didn’t want to die, either, and thousands crammed on board before the train left the station (what station, in what country, is never specified).

And as a result of all the great unwashed in the back end of the train, those in the front take great care to engineer a society in which they remain on top (in roomy first class, at the head of the train), with the middle class in the middle cars (where the hydroponic and meat-raising carriages also are) and the “Third Class” passengers in the tail end in filthy, cramped conditions in carriages that weren’t designed for passengers.

So, OK, it’s not exactly the deepest allegory for the class system that afflicts most of humanity. But you couldn’t ask for a more stark one. And with today’s debate about income inequality, you couldn’t ask for a more timely one.

Meanwhile, the narrative is carried forward by a Tail-Ender named Poloff, who makes a desperate attempt to break into the Second Class cars by going “outside” and breaking through a bathroom window before he freezes to death. He is quickly arrested, but for some reason the elites want to interrogate him personally. The graphic novel is, essentially, his trip (and that of a woman who tries to help him) from the tail end of the train to the front, and all the mysteries, marvels and miseries he witnesses en route.

Meanwhile, the Snowpiercer barrels blindly on through the snow, with no destination and no hope, on a dead world. Is that also a metaphor, perhaps of the human condition? If so, what does it say of us that the train’s occupants pray uselessly to “St Loco”, the god of the train?

All of which makes for a rich, albeit cold, stew. The characters are as familiar as today’s headlines, but there’s an alienness to it, too – not just the bizarre landscape the train hurtles through, but the British-style artwork (and probably British translation, given the slang).

Written by Jacques Lob and Benjamin Legrand, and drawn by Jean-Marc Rochette in a style that reminds me of Judge Dredd, Snowpiercer 1: The Escape (Titan, US$19.99) is the first English translation.

There is a sequel, just out on Feb 26: Snowpiercer 2: The Explorers (also from Titan, but US$24.99) is about a second train, which the first train didn’t know about. The second book is a bit more action-oriented, but contains many of the same allegorical elements. If anything, it is even more downbeat than the first, so be warned.

Running even farther afield, according to reports, is the Snowpiercer movie. While the premise remains intact, it appears the film follows an attempted revolution by the Tail-Enders. There was actually a revolt of a kind in the graphic novel’s timeline, but it occurred before the story begins, and is couched – like almost everything in Snowpiercer – in a he said/she said from different viewpoints.

For example, the elites refer to the (failed) mass effort by Tail-Enders to force their way into better carriages as “The Wild Rush” while the Tail-Enders refer to it as “The Massacre”.

I’d recommend reading Snowpiercer as prep for the movie, but I can also recommend it on story grounds. It’s the sort of book that could launch a thousand college papers and coffee-shop conversations – or a personal journey of one’s own. – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

>Snowpiercer is still playing on the local cinema circuit, although screenings are limited. Check listings for details.

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