Upward mobility in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Snowpiercer

Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s darkly comic masterpiece, made history with its Academy Award Best Picture win – yet the surprise win was just the final feather in the cap of the universally praised South Korean film.

For those eager to discover more of Bong Joon-ho’s filmography, ready yourselves – not only are you in for a fantastic time, but you should probably kick things off with Snowpiercer, an under-seen masterpiece that has shares many similarities with Bong’s current smash hit. The 2013 science fiction film is based on a French graphic novel and was Bong’s English-language debut. The film has a magnificent cast that sees frequent Bong collaborator and Parasite star Song Kang-ho share the screen with Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and many more.

© 2013 – Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer, like Parasite is a cautionary tale of upward mobility and class warfare wrapped in a tremendously entertaining story – although the two films approach these timely themes in radically different ways. The super-rich Parks in Parasite are malevolently oblivious antagonists. The Kim family leeches off their wealth through fraud and deception, carefully and meticulously infiltrating the Park household.

Snowpiercer is a far more explicit – its tale of upward mobility is not one of subterfuge, but violent revolution. In a world ravaged by a misguided attempt at climate engineering that has left the world frozen and unable to sustain life, the last surviving humans live on a specially designed train that circles the globe, never stopping. The passengers in the tail section are viewed as the lowest of the low, cramped in squalid living conditions and surviving on brown nutrition bars, while the front sections enjoy a luxurious and extravagant lifestyle.

Chris Evans, in a role that darkly subverts the charismatic leadership he brought to Captain America, comes to lead a tail section revolution, recruiting Song Kang-ho’s security specialist along the way. As the small army of exploited, neglected tail section passengers violently make their way further and further up the train, they not only face mounting opposition but also (for the first time) uncover the true extent of the gulf between classes.

Fair warning, the rest of this article contains major spoilers for both Parasite and Snowpiercer, so if you’d like to avoid those, stop reading now.

© 2019 – Parasite

Time passes and the Kims discover that they weren’t the first to take advantage of the Parks – in fact, a hidden underground bunker had become the de-facto home of a man hiding from loan sharks, his wife being the Parks’ now-ex-housekeeper. The two groups grow hostile towards one another, and all the while the Parks remain none the wiser. Under Parasite‘s circumstances, all that the Parks need to do to stoke the flames is to exist. The disparity between their extravagant wealth and the relative poverty in which the Kims live perpetuates a system where the poor lie, steal and violently turn on each other in order to get closer to the upper strata of society.

Snowpiercer takes a different turn; there, the zero-sum game of capitalism isn’t a pervasive fact, but a carefully engineered system of perpetual suffering and disparity. Those not in the tail section are subjected to constant and malicious propaganda, and embroiled in a cult of personality from a very early age. Chris Evans’s character Curtis eventually reaches the very front of the train and meets its creator Wilford, played by Ed Harris. Wilford explains that the train is a closed ecosystem with a strict and brutal method of population- and class- control.

© 2013 – Snowpiercer

Every single tail section uprising, including Curtis’, was orchestrated by Wilford and others – and while Curtis was never meant to make it this far, even that can be made a part of the plan. Curtis can supplant Wilford and take over leadership of the train, but as long as there’s a front of the train, there will always be a tail. Curtis opts for something different altogether – a plan conceived by Song Kang-ho ‘s security specialist Namgoong Minsoo: blow the doors wide open and just leave it all behind. The explosion causes an avalanche that derails the train.

The fate of the passengers – and humanity – is unclear, but the final shot is one of tentative hope. Two survivors emerge from the train’s wreckage and a lone polar bear is spotted in the distance, indicating that life could continue outside the train’s closed system of enforced class division. Parasite‘s ending somehow seems even more uncertain – can Ki-woo really make enough money to free his father from his underground prison? Or has he just fallen into the same delusional pitfalls of upward mobility, the same ruthless system that chewed up his family and spat it out, worse off than they ever were?

© 2019 – Parasite

The sci-fi post-apocalyptic backdrop of Snowpiercer allows for a more radical and blunt form of social commentary on the surface. That being said, one could strongly argue that Parasite is ultimately more striking and urgent because it’s so much closer to everyday reality. Either way, both films make strong, compelling arguments and deliver explosive commentary on timely themes – two masterpieces that are well worth your time.

Stanyo Zhelev

Socially awkward geek that loves movies and writing about them. King's College London graduate. Look for on Letterboxd (https://letterboxd.com/cinemastan/) and my personal site (http://thecinemastan.com/)