Train-to-Busan

Train to Busan (2016)

A father boards a train with his daughter. Unbeknownst to him and the other passengers, the zombie apocalypse is breaking out right as they leave the station. The last passenger to board is actually a person who has been infected. This sets the stage for a white-knuckle ride aboard Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan.

Writing for /Film back in November, Rob Hunter listed Train to Busan as one of the best train movies you’ve never seen. It’s not my favorite South Korean train movie; that honor belongs to Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. It is, however, a much-needed shot of adrenaline back in the arm of the zombie subgenre, whose slow, shuffling steps have — in terms of recent mainstream visibility — become all but synonymous with the plodding pace of a certain uneven, hour-long television drama on AMC.

Having invested seven full seasons, 99 episodes, in The Walking Dead, only to sorta-kinda casually give up watching it last year, I hesitate to impugn the show now. So instead I’ll let Stephen King do that. Stephen King tweeted that Train to Busan “makes The Walking Dead look tame.” This film is a swift-moving crowd-pleaser that ratchets up the tension and foregoes crossbows or katana swords to just give you big burly guys with their arms thickly padded in tape, punching zombies in the face.

It’s also a movie where you are made to really care about the characters, to the point where the viewer gets emotionally invested when things get a little sentimental. That humanity is earned rather than manufactured.

Under-the-Shadow

Under the Shadow (2016)

When people think “Asian horror,” they most often think East Asian horror. But Asia is a big continent that is also includes the Middle East. In recent years, Iranian filmmakers like Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) and filmmakers of Iranian descent like Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) have been gaining more recognition on the international scene.

Under the Shadow is an international co-production between the United Kingdom, Jordan, and Qatar. It is filmed in the Persian language by an Iranian-born filmmaker and its setting of Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War plays an integral part in the story. It forces the main character, a mother named Shideh, into a position where she cannot continue her medical studies and her husband is sent off to war. This leaves Shideh to care for their daughter on her own in a building that is undergoing constant bombardment from artillery shellings. One of those shellings leaves a missile lodged in an upstairs apartment and that missile may or may not have had a malevolent djinn riding its head. Soon, neighbors begin evacuating the city and Shideh is left alone in the building with her daughter and the djinn.

After two years, Under the Shadow still has a 99% Tomatometer rating. If I have any qualms about the film, it is only that the final physical manifestation of the monster, as it were, is not nearly as scary as the thick tension that builds up while it is still being portrayed largely as an off-screen threat.

In her Sundance review for /Film, Angie Han compared the film to The Babadook and talked about how the monster is more effective when you consider it “as an embodiment of Sideh’s anxieties.” One of the movie’s scariest scenes actually involves Sideh fleeing from the supernatural, only to find herself in trouble with the police for leaving home without the traditional head covering that she is required, by law, to wear. Her plight evokes sympathy: this is a woman who lives under the shadow of war and a controlling regime.

As with other films on this list, imagining oneself in the same circumstances, beyond the usual freedoms or cultural norms we take for granted, evokes a different kind of horror.

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