- Bong Joon-ho’s Eternal EngineTranslation, Memory, and Ecological Collapse in Snowpiercer (2013)
Set in the dystopic near future, in the year 2032, Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer takes as its starting point an environmental disaster set in the then temporal present 2014. An attempt to chemically counteract the global warming crisis through the use of a substance called CW-7 has failed, resulting in the freezing of the planet and the extinction of almost all life. The few people lucky enough to survive reside on a train commandeered by the prescient American genius Dr. Wilford, who has designed a locomotive capable of circling the planet at the rate of one lap per year. It is, in many ways, a timely film—not only for the ecological and political issues that it addresses but for the global scope of its critique. As a space, the train both encompasses and resists the idea of a coherent nation or national allegiance—though it houses an array of people from disparate countries and backgrounds, it hurtles across the globe unhinged from any territorial expanse.
While critics have been quick to read Snowpiercer as a straightforward class drama or work of cli-fi, less attention has been paid to the linguistic dimensions of its dystopian narrative.1 The film underscores translation as a subtle yet powerful force that shapes how we see—or don’t see—environmental violence on a global scale. Through moments of ecological collapse and communication failure, Snowpiercer emphasizes the untenability of our current petrocapitalist system and imagines, [End Page 6] in its stead, a global future predicated on care for others and the planet rather than economic gain. The viability of this imagined future is crucially dependent on the practice of translation, which aids in the formation of empathic intranational connections, ensuring the survival of the planet. I argue that a reading of Snowpiercer’s climate change narrative through the lens of translation reveals two problematic assumptions undergirding current discussions about climate change, environmental destruction, and global culture. The first assumption is an embrace of globalism that is both implicitly financial and articulated in (or through) the anglophone West. This uncritical monolingualism is particularly surprising, given the widespread embrace of the transnational turn by scholars working in the humanities.2 The second assumption, which is related to the first, is the notion that the work of translation is somehow an ideologically neutral act. This seemingly obvious concept is nevertheless important to keep in mind when considering how art and literature of the Anthropocene—already working to give expression and shape to a phenomenon that seems to resist representation altogether—is subject to further distortions as it is acted on by translation, moving from one language system and cultural context to another.
My reading of the entanglements of globalism, environmental violence, and translation in Bong’s oeuvre is thus twofold. I begin by situating Snowpiercer—and Bong’s work more generally—within the current cinematic climate of the United States. While a version of global cinema has been embraced by North American critics, I argue that the circulation difficulties Snowpiercer faced upon release expose a certain inflexibility around the kinds of international releases allowed to circulate in American theatres, especially when these films grapple with politically exigent issues like climate change. I then move to a more formal reading of Snowpiercer’s ecodystopian narrative, which I suggest uses the trope of translation to make strange (and strangely visible) the anglocentric and North American underpinnings of our global petrocapitalist system. I conclude with a consideration of the futures—environmental, political, and linguistic—that the film envisions and with a reflection on what the adaptive afterlives of the film might hold. [End Page 7]
Translation as Genre, or The Anglocentric Demands of “Global” Cinema
Though Snowpiercer envisions a world in the dystopian future, it bears an uncanny resemblance to our current moment. The hierarchical configuration of its train in particular—with the lowest-class, most-destitute passengers in the tail section—points to the unsettling durability of certain structures, like class, in this postapocalyptic hermetic space. The train is, we are told, “a closed ecological system...