Train To Busan begins with the routine frustrations of a hapless truck driver: a dodgy checkpoint, impassive security forces, a collision with a deer that he registers as just one more irritation on a frustrating route.
When he drives off, still huffing and puffing about how nothing’s going right, we watch the deer twitchily reassemble itself, stand upright, and stare off into the distance with clouded eyes. This bright day in South Korea is about to get substantially worse.
Director Yeon Sang-ho borrows liberally, and gleefully, from the zombie canon for Train To Busan, especially 28 Days Later and its descendants. But the genre genius that sets it apart is the setting: if we start with a truck, we very soon find ourselves on a train. This is a very interesting place to be, cinematically and metaphorically: its contours and evocations allow for claustrophobia, intimacy, and distance in turn.
That’s especially true when your co-passengers very much want to eat you.
Train To Busan makes another smart choice by introducing us to compelling principle characters, including an adorable little girl protagonist. The human drama — a wayward dad too obsessed with his job, an expectant father with clear class antagonism, the lone girl among a group of teenage baseball players — raises the stakes and compels real investment. This is another thing the train helps elucidate: its close confines creates a revealing mise-en-scene, allowing character differences to come to the fore. This makes all the difference when the face-eating starts.
The debt to 28 Days Later and World War Z is most evident in the fast-moving zombies. Zombie purists might object, but Train to Busan capitalizes on the momentum of their tenacity, which structurally matches the speed and unstoppable inertia of the train itself. Yeon Sang-ho smartly plays the parallel for all its worth, and the result is a nail-biting dive into the abject.
In any case, the complaints of the “zombies are slow, goddammit” crowd are literally overrun by the biochemically-induced undead. As they should be. Train To Busan is smart, scary, gory, brutal, occasionally hilarious zombie fare that knows exactly what it’s doing.
(Streaming on Netflix)
In its day, Ken Russell’s The Devils was reviled and banned. Pairing exploitation grotesquerie with religious iconography is usually a sure way to inspire condemnation.
Viewed today, it’s a clear horror masterpiece, full of striking images and a deeply cynical, operatic take on patriarchy and the excesses of faith — a modern-day Häxan, from which it liberally borrows.
Set in a convent where Satanic mania (hysteria?) is afoot, The Devils fills the frame with witchiness just as gleefully as Christensen did in 1922, though with considerably more full-frontal nudity and barely-concealed rage.
As the convent fever spreads across its 17th century setting, Russell spares no opportunity to shock the prudes. By the time Vanessa Redgrave’s repressed, hunchbacked nun and her possessed cohorts are sexually assaulting statues of Christ and masturbating with the burned tibia of the executed, you may begin to understand the controversy.
But The Devils remains one of the purest visions of cinematic effrontry ever created. It’s fearlessly brilliant and profane.
The films of Andrei Tarkovsky: Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror, and Stalker
Is Tarkovsky on your list of directors you know you should check out, but just haven’t yet? We understand: the Fast and Furious franchise ain’t going to watch itself!
But, thanks to the good folks at Open Culture, your excuses are running out. These gorgeous ruminations on faith and identity are streaming in their entirety, in excellent transfers, for free. Get to it.
Jim Jarmusch. The Stooges. You know if you want this, and you probably want this.
(Streaming on Amazon Prime)
Janicza Bravo is a singular talent, and her 8th short is a beguiling vision of encroaching madness. Letterboxd and IMDB actually summarizes the film thus: “A woman calls a suicide prevention hotline and is put on hold.”
This is true, but it doesn’t really capture the short. Bravo and her team create a sustained mood of edginess in a house of splendor, with Allison Pill on the verge of a birthday breakdown in the title role. The central theme is loneliness, even in the company of others, and the failures of communication. It’s impossible to turn away.
The Panamanian-born director’s feature Lemon just premiered at SXSW and was promptly acquired by Magnolia Pictures. Now seems as good a time as any to get on her empathetic wavelength.