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A Taste of Revolution: Food’s Status and Power

by Jordi Gaton

Snowpiercer - Figure 1. Passenger eats his protein block ration in the back of the train.
Figure 1. Passenger eats his protein block ration in the back of the train.

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is a post apocalyptic action thriller set in a world where attempts to combat the threat of global warming have resulted in Earth’s devolving into an unlivable winter hellscape. The only humans alive are those on a train, circling the world endlessly and waiting for Earth to become inhabitable. While safe from the frost, it becomes apparent to our protagonist, Chris Evans, and the rest of the people relegated to the back car that this safety has come at the cost of their freedom and humanity. The train comes to represent inequality and each car closer towards the “holy engine” becomes home to a higher caste of individuals. Bong Joon-ho further develops the theme of inequality throughout the film in its juxtaposition of the ghastly food given to those in the back and the elegant food available to those in the front of the train. Through this clever metaphor, Bong Joon-ho crafts his own dystopian representation of the socio-economic inequity that exists in our world.

In the opening scenes, the people of the back train stand waiting to be counted, so that they may receive their daily “protein block” ration from the heavily armed soldiers. As these people stand in lines reminiscent of Soviet bread ration queues from the Cold War era, they frantically grab and gnaw on these gelatinous blocks in a way that makes them appear more animal than human. In Figure 1, this block seems to be sapping the very humanity out of these people, causing a Kafkaesque transformation, as their puffy beaten faces appear more devolved and insect-like. Later in the next car over a POV shot through Curtis, we see in Figure 2 that these blocks derive their transformative effects from their protein source, cockroaches. In this, the director plays with the notion that “one is what one eats” in order to both represent the horrid station of life that these people inhabit and the lack of humanity afforded to these individuals at the back of the train.

Snowpiercer: Figure 2. Second car from the back, where the protein in the protein block comes from.
Figure 2. Second car from the back, where the protein in the protein block comes from.

Snowpiercer - image of sushi on tray, which is for the privileged passengers
Figure 3. “This is only served twice in a year. Balance. This aquarium is a closed ecological system and the number of units must be very closely, precisely controlled in order to maintain the proper sustainable balance.” –Tilda Swinton, Wilford’s right hand.

In contrast, as Curtis and his mob move forward through the cars they walk through a massive aquarium filled with a whole ecosystem of fish that they thought were extinct, to find themselves at a sushi bar and are presented in Figure 3 (above) with a dish that is today associated with luxury. The sushi itself, unlike the horribly unappetizing protein block, emphasizes artistic presentation and clean, pure ingredients. As they eat, Tilda Swinton, one of the higher-ranking officials on the train, remarks with pride that this dish is available because of the “very precise” efforts and control that they exert on the ecosystem. In this exchange it becomes evident that she and the train conductor, Wilford, see the people on the train in the same way as they see these fish. Wilford in his final meeting with Curtis confirms this theory and openly states that the people in all of the cars represent a delicate ecosystem that must be managed closely and that Curtis’s rebellion was an elaborate plot to correct the overpopulation present within the train. Wilford intended that Curtis start the revolution, so that Curtis could succeed him as the conductor. But this development leaves an interesting question: Why did they choose Curtis?

The answer lies in the early, darker days of the train—the day Curtis was crammed in the back at the young age of 17. In those days the population was much too great and there was no food in the back cars. After a month the entire car including Curtis, resorted to cannibalism. In a torrent of emotion he reveals this to Namgoong Minsoo in the final car: “You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. I know babies taste the best.” In this moment, Curtis reveals to the audience the source of his power and the reason why both Wilford and Gillian felt that Curtis could take over the train. Having tasted the flesh of the weak, Curtis has obtained the strength and sheer will to survive that are a perquisite for survival in this post- apocalyptic world. As a leader through the revolution of the back car, he willingly sacrifices friends and his lover, in order to chase his dream and passion for change. In putting the lives of individuals over his passion for equality, Curtis represents the darker side of revolution where human lives become secondary to the preservation of the ideal.Through the example of Curtis, it becomes apparent that there is no clear dichotomy between revolutionaries and those who are in power. Oftentimes as it has been demonstrated throughout history, the most passionate of believers can become more heartless than the people they struggle against. The social conflict that follows is oftentimes a transformative moment that changes the oppressed into the oppressors, leading to a perpetuation of the same inequity from which the conflict originated. Altogether, the sacrifices that both sides lose in this cyclical social strife essentially feed these ideals. As ideals supersede the lives of individuals, a revolution consumes its own followers in a way akin to cannibalism. Through this metaphor Bong Joon-ho critiques not only those in power but also those who seek change without concern for the lives of individuals.

This passing of the torch to Curtis represents the Marxist cycle of revolution and revolt between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. In this, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an uncompromising critique of social inequality that arises from an unequal distribution of powers. Food stands out in this film as a sign of this unequal status and lack of justice within the train society. The transformative effects derived from the consumption of this food drive both Curtis and his people to revolt against Wilford to reclaim their lost humanity. This struggle, depicted closely through food, therefore represents redemption for Curtis and humanity as a whole.


Works Cited

Pong, C., Harris, E., Hurt, J., Swinton, T., Bell, J., Spencer, O., & Entertainment One (Firm : Canada), (2014). Snowpiercer.


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