If You Enjoyed “Parasite,” You Should Watch “Snowpiercer”
I saw Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite when it was still in theaters, before the Academy Awards. It was by far the best movie I had seen in quite some time. And so I was pleased when it won Best Picture. So I did a deep dive and looked for other movies by this formidable director. The pandemic brought a slew of movie lists before me to watch while staying home. Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer (2013) dangled from one such list, and I grabbed it and held on. What a thrilling ride.
As a lifelong movie buff who grew up just over the hill from Hollywood, I’m increasingly drawn to quality films. I have little patience for formulaic movies, cheap horror flicks, or tried-and-true Rom Coms. I’m an admitted movie elitist, thought not a snob. I’ll occasionally indulge in a MST3000-type romp through movies from the other side of the tracks. But normally, I watch and rewatch classics from the 1940s through the 2000s until I can breathe and quote them. I memorize cast and crew and have a long list of favorite directors. When I find something I like, I’ll do a deep dive into an auteur’s complete works, or the complete body of work of some notable actor or actress.
If you liked Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, you’re going to really like Snowpiercer. It has all the class warfare of Parasite, but set in a much more telescoped world. I won’t give the story away in case you want to watch it, but here’s the plot. The world is frozen, the result of an attempt to solve the climate change crisis gone horribly wrong. A single bullet train, presumably carrying all that’s left of humanity, speeds along a looped track through the snow-covered frozen wasteland. What’s left of humanity is “classed” within the train: the dirty and starving proles in the back, a middling class and worker bees in the middle, the hope for the future — children being taught in a classroom car — nearer the front, and the current director/conductor, represented as the 1%, alone in the front.
While the plot centers upon the inevitable ebb and flow of uprising and revolution that such a situation would create, the movie gains its force from the individual performances of great actors that you know and love.
Kang-ho Song, who plays the father of the basement-dwelling con artist family in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite plays a pivotal role in Snowpiercer, which happens to be an English language film with an International All-star cast. Song is well-known in the South Korean film industry, and he’s hardly recognizable here with his wild untamed hair and frantic animalistic looks as one of the downtrodden fighting for a better existence on the speeding train.
Chris Evans, he of Captain America fame, stars in Snowpiercer, one of the rabble who wants to move up in the train, overthrow the overlords, and provide some relief to the hardened, frequently limbless workers. It’s by far his best role, better even than his role in Knives Out, where the ultimate Marvel good guy gets a chance to play a complete scumbag. But Evans doesn’t do much in Knives Out. He sits there and looks smug and disgusted. In Snowpiercer, he has the moral compass of Steve Rogers but with no powers, so it’s his will and strength and smarts that must get him through.
The legendary John Hurt makes an appearance, though as with most Hurt roles, he’s hardly recognizable. Of course, Hurt is the actor out of which the alien in the Alien franchise burst from his stomach in one of the most terrifying monster reveals in film history. Hurt also played Winston Smith in 1984, reasoning that 2+2 does indeed equal 5, if tortured enough. And Hurt played the humped and be-tumored John Merrick in David Lynch’s excellent movie The Elephant Man. You’d probably also recognize Sir Hurt as Ollivander the wand dealer in the Harry Potter series. True to his other roles, in Snowpiecer Hurt’s overgrown hair and beard makes him barely recognizable. He plays the back-of-the-train leader of the dirt-ridden underclass, lacking two limbs, sacrifices he has made to help his brethren in their interminable struggle.
At the front of the train is Ed Harris who plays Wilford, the current conductor of the train, dining on good wine and fresh grilled steak. I’ve always been a fan of Harris and recently enjoyed his turn in Westworld. He plays the dirty villain and the tuxedo’d gent both perfectly at ease. The fact that Wilford and John Hurt’s character Gilliam are in communication between the back and front of the train creates an intrigue that heightens all the drama beyond even the secret room in Parasite.
Along the journey from back of train to front, the rebels encounter a school room, led by the pregnant teacher played by Alison Pill. Pill played the lesbian data cruncher and campaign supporter in the biopic Milk. She has just enough recognition value and a tour de force performance in this cartoonish nightmare world, the only place of color and light in the whole train, an elementary school classroom, defended to the death by hidden guns and the hypocrisy of education.
Finally, there is one completely over-the-top performance that molds the entire movie into a cross between a horror flick and the ridiculousness of the populace of Panem in The Hunger Games. This is Academy Award winning actress Tilda Swinton’s best role, as Mason, middle management who through uplifting rhetoric makes sure everyone stays in his or her prescribed place because “Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine.” She is cartoon macabre with an indelible accent and a twisted and twisting arm motion reminiscent of a fascist salute. Her task is to preserve order, with the help of ghoulish henchmen. Swinton steals this entire movie as the train barrels forward everlastingly.
Parasite earned its prestigious accolades due to Bong Joon Ho’s particular genius, but it’s earlier movies in a director’s career that often surface to show that genius in full force. Though the movie is 7 years old, Snowpiercer is relevant for today, especially as we ride the speeding train of a pandemic, but even more so as we struggle with climate change and the topsy-turvy world of the haves and have-nots.
Enjoy the thrilling ride of Snowpiercer, and let me know what you think of it.
Lee G. Hornbrook taught college English in every time zone in the continental United States for more than 25 years. He lived on a sailboat and has traded teaching for the writer’s life. Between Medium articles, he is at work on a memoir. Find him on Twitter @awordpleaseblog and at his personal blog A Word, Please.