Before the groundbreaking success and critical praise of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, there was Snowpiercer. While Parasite explored the idea of class structure through a basic, yet sharp satirical lens, it was the former of Joon Ho’s films that dared to dive headfirst into the odd and fantastical. Warning: spoilers for both films will be discussed in order to fully explore the themes at play. Parasite is an incredible watch where you have no idea where the film will take you next, so going in blind is highly recommended. However, its themes have much in common with Snowpiercer and cannot be avoided. Viewer beware, you’re in for a scare. Well, at least spoilers scare you.
Let’s begin with the build-up for Parasite. We meet the Kim family struggling to make money while living in a slum basement, searching only for a way to get by. When the opportunity to tutor a young girl of a wealthy family, the Parks, falls into their son’s lap, the Kim family hatches a plan to infiltrate the Park household by slowly taking the jobs of their maid, driver, and art tutor. The idea of lying and cheating to obtain wealth comes second-nature to the Kims, not even second-guessing their efforts and the idea of this scam as morally wrong. However, the Kims soon learn that they are not the only ones taking opportunities from the rich, with the previous maid they cheated out of a job revealing that she has kept her husband in a secret basement underneath the Park household. Now knowing each others’ secrets, the two low-class families compete for a spot in the wealthy household without the Park’s even realizing what’s happening under their roof.
Parasite is a brilliant and slight look at both class warfare and how life forces our hands to achieve what is seen as desirable to all individuals. But, while Parasite received massive praise for its’ original look at social conflict, Bong Joon Ho had previously tackled the idea of class structure in a much more apocalyptic and grim manner with 2014’s Snowpiercer.
In Snowpiercer, an experiment in climate control catastrophically resulted in a new Ice Age. With the entire planet covered in snow, the only remnants of humanity exist aboard a speed train traversing the nation in 2031, led by an almost Wonka-esque owner named Wilford. Each car of the train represents a different class, stepping further down the ladder as you move to the back of the locomotive. These classes have taken liberties with their surroundings and created jobs, roles, and different ideas of luxuries based on their material wealth.
We learn of these wealth classes through the eyes of Curtis (Chris Evans), a lower class man who leads a revolt with his peers against spokesperson Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) as they move towards the front of the massive train, all in the hopes of proportionately distributing the wealth among all classes. As they travel from car to car, the revolutionaries discover classrooms designed to educate children on the world we left behind, restaurants, and even nightclubs. These luxuries might seem slight to those whose access to them was akin to a birthright, but these concepts are lost completely on the lower class passengers who have never had the luxury of restaurants or knowledge. Insistent on changing the future for their people, Curtis and his peers push forth with their revolution against Wilford and his wealthy patrons.
It seems funny to say Parasite is a vertical cover of Snowpiercer only because of how true it feels in hindsight. Granted, Parasite has a very elegant and subtle way of discussing the different classes and their struggles. Snowpiercer, however, revels in the weird and paints most of its wealthy citizens as villains and the less wealthy as heroes. Let’s put it this way: If Parasite is Citizen Kane, then Snowpiercer is Mad Max. One is not better than the other, but both share the same mindset on class structure and how privilege affects the way we not only live, but also the way we think.
For example, Curtis originally shows little desire to kill the wealthy and steal their money, instead hoping to redistribute the money to the less fortunate. It is only when Curtis discovers their negligence and lack of caring to others’ way of life, most notably during a disgusting reveal of the ingredient used in the lower class’ food bars, that he becomes violent. Now, 6 years after the film was released in the U.S., TNT is airing a television series on Snowpiercer starring Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly. This should be interesting, as the TV story intends to go well past the two hours of the original films’ runtime, potentially in the hopes of diving deeper into the allegory of class systems. Whether it embraces the weird and wild side of Joon Ho’s film remains to be seen.
The films of Bong Joon Ho almost never shy away from any mention of social commentary- See The Host for your needs of both low wealth families and blood-thirsty monsters. Yet Snowpiercer was the first to receive mainstream U.S. attention by daring to lay out a map of class structure and make us examine our awareness on privilege. While Parasite may give a more clean and grounded look at class warfare, Snowpiercer dares to get into the dirt and show class status as an idea that can survive the most apocalyptic of events. Even after near-extinction, we are still only human.