Let me tell you about a scene from SNOWPIERCER.
Here’s what you need to know about this, the 5th film by South Korean master director Bong Joon-ho. Earth is frozen. The remaining people live on a train that circles the globe once per year. The poor people are herded into the back cars, while those in “economy” and “first class” continue to enjoy the pleasures of bourgeois life up front. Those in the back—like Chris Evans’ Curtis—are essentially living through holocaust-like conditions as the film begins, 18 years after the train first began rattling over the frozen planet. Bong’s picture opens on them, living in squalor, covered with dirt, and planning out a revolution.
They want to bop their way toward the front, like the Warriors to Coney Island, but the front-dwellers—protected by an army led by a Tilda Swinton character (!)—aren’t too happy about that. So Curtis, alongside characters played by Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho and many others, is fighting his way from train-car-to-train-car, trying to get to the mythical John Galt-like conductor situated alongside the engine at the very front. When he and his crew get to one of those train cars, though, a bunch of hooded, all-black-everything militants are waiting for them, armed with axes and other weaponry. This is the scene I want to tell you about.
This combat sequence will stimulate visually literate brains in a way that even spatially coherent action scenes rarely do. (Here’s an action scene to make the action scenes in “The Raid” look like mindless dojo advertisements.) Bong utilizes every aspect of the film form to illustrate and expound on his themes here. His craft engages with both the similarities and the differences separating these two groups of warriors— and does so while characters are hacking each other to bits.
Let’s think about camera movement itself first: before the fight even begins, Bong is meticulously curating our reactions. He shoots a long face-off in static, slow-motion frames, then shifts immediately to real-time and shaky-cameras as the first blow is laid out. The combat itself —which isn’t a stand-in for any particular politicized violence, but rather is a stand-in for all politicized violence—is inhuman, hard to look at, a disgrace to our very being, and Bong imbues that into the way that his camera captures the carnage. Every once in a while, we get a static shot of the world the train is rattling past outside. All us stupid humans fighting and social climbing and politicking and dying in the process, while the world sits outside watching, unmoved, unshaken, unchanged.
Lighting is also used to near-profound effect. In fact, this whole fight scene is literally built around lighting shifts—light sources are the axis on which the scene turns, like the earrings in “Madame de…” The battle starts on even ground, with the poor revolutionaries and the middle-class army slashing each other under the glow of sunlight sneaking in through the windows. Soon enough, though, a tunnel comes up and the lights go out—letting the army brutalize and massacre their insurgent opponents with the help of night vision goggles. That lasts until the lower-classers fight back by employing primitive (or: affordable) means, carrying torches to the battleground so that they may fight, and win, under firelight. There’s clearly some commentary to chew into when it comes to that lighting decision. Forget about those subtextual concerns for a moment, though, because this image itself—Evans and his ilk moving toward the front of the car, vanquishing their enemies, all while sparks fly off the torches and lend the entire event a menacing nightmare-ish-ness—is one of the most striking images put to film in a hell of a long time.
Then there’s that thing we call mise-en-scene—the way Bong positions his characters within the frames. One of the themes Bong returns to throughout the film is that the poor, morally speaking, are no better than their rich oppressors. Many of the disenfranchised characters aren’t fighting for equality—they just want their chance to eat sushi and play the role of oppressor, too. They don’t want to change the system that dictates the way they live (cough, capitalist, cough, wealth inequality,) they just want to change their own position in that system. And so before the fight even begins, Bong is shooting Evans from the back, shrouding his whole body in black, which is the exact color his oppressors are dressed in. They’re one and the same.
Compare that to the way that Bong frames Nam (Song Kang-ho) during the fight. Nam has different aims than Curtis. He wants off the train, he wants out of the system. We always see Curtis walking left-to-right, from the back of the train to the front, like he’s locked on a rail. In contrast, Bong allows Nam his freedom; he commands the center of frames, and can wobble back and forth within them. Curtis is allowed no such freedom. At one point Bong tracks left-to-right, in slow motion, while Curtis hacks his way through middle-class hired-hand warriors, men from both sides dying alongside him. This is all while the upper-class generals (led by Swinton) laugh and marvel at the carnage offscreen. Has a better visual metaphor for the pointlessness of social climbing ever been conceived?
There’s a Gordon Willis retrospective coming to the Brattle soon. This scene, and all of its moving parts, recalls one of his maxims. He talked often about “relativism,” explaining that every shot in a movie must be in a dialogue with other shots from that movie. For instance, Willis says that the shadowy lighting he surrounded Don Corleone with in THE GODFATHER would have no effect on viewers had he not shot the prior wedding scene in a contrasting home-movie -looking “Kodachrome” aesthetic. Bong’s entire cinema—not just the lighting, not just the hallmark shifting tones—explores this concept. In this one sequence alone, we have light vs. dark, technology vs. primitivism, rich vs. poor, brashness vs. strategy, the will to climb socially vs. the will to dispense with class altogether. All of these themes are being crafted, created, and commented on via the cinematic form itself. This is a manner of storytelling allowed only by moving images. Bong Joon-ho is cinema—and so is SNOWPIERCER.