SNOWPIERCER: The Difficulties of Cross-Cultural Communication - A Way Too Late Review
WARNING: Mild, vague, and other low-level adjective-laden spoilers ahead.
SNOWPIERCER, directed by Joon-ho Bong and starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Kang-ho Song, is the best movie I’ve seen this year. Maybe the past two years. It is simply masterful. One aspect of its excellence is how it manages to never be about one thing. Certainly it has a central plot, but within the plot are so many sub-stories and points of interest that you can just about pick a five-minute segment at random and then confidently say “Snowpiercer was a story about (insert social topic).” You can do this because, at its core, Snowpierce is about people, not messages or agendas. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so fantastic. It takes normal people and throws them in an impossible situation and lets the story unfold as naturally as possible. Joon-ho populates his stage with colorful characters and then lets them drive his movie forwards like, well, like an apocalyptic train powered by a perpetual engine.
One reality that is starkly demonstrated in SNOWPIERCER is that when people of different cultures attempt to communicate the endeavor is rife with difficulties. The world of SNOWPIERCER is clearly divided into “haves” and “have-nots” and these two groups have a very difficult time understanding each other. Tilda Swinton’s character serves as an awkward and ineffective go-between and every aspect of her character, from the stilted speech patterns to the outlandish and alien appearance, reflects the disconnect between the groups. As the follows the revolution from the rear of the train towards the engine it presents each step in the journey, each train car between the caboose and the engine, as an alien world to the eyes of the uprisers and the people who populate each car are equally alien. How can they live in such grandeur knowing that but a few hundred yards away people are living in squalor? They can conceive of no credible answer to this question. Likewise, the occupants of the cars in question are at a loss to understand the identities or motivations of their invaders.
The film culminates in a confrontation between the rebellion’s leader, Curtis (Chris Evans), and Wilford, the train’s engineer. In it the leaders of their respective worlds realize just how fully alien they are to each other. They have a fairly lengthy conversation but communicate very little. The only thing they clearly understand about each other is that they are similar men made radically different by the cultures that have shaped them.
Of all the lessons that can be extracted from the richness of SNOWPIERCER, this is perhaps its most relatable, that different groups within any given area have their own language, social parameters, and ulterior motives that are not clearly evident to their neighbors. Because of this cross-cultural communication will not always be easy, but it will always be necessary. Had the citizens of SNOWPIERCER’s titular train been more concerned with the welfare of those in the cars behind them than with the favor of those in the cars ahead, that might have avoided their own…well, I don’t want to spoil things.
SNOWPIERCER is an unflinchingly brutal film that earns it’s R rating through its honest depictions of violence and it’s use of coarse language. It’s also filled with honest characters portrayed by a terrific cast of actors. The main conceit (a train powered by a perpetual engine circling an ice-bound, post-apocalyptic world) may be far-fetched, but the situations faced are very conceivable. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is a ride worth taking.