MOVIE GUIDE: MY QUARANTINE THROUGH CINEMA
When COVID-19 derailed my summer plans, I watched over 50 movies while quarantining at my parents' house. For the sake of my mental health, I should have gotten lost in escapist melodramas and stoner comedies. Instead, I saw an opportunity to understand a dark moment in history as I lived through it. Here are my movie recommendations should we ever need to lock down again.
The mass hysteria, toilet paper-hoarding, and government mismanagement of COVID-19 recall the apocalypses depicted in these films. In Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (2006), as an infertility epidemic ravages the world, a former activist in Britain, now a xenophobic police state, is conscripted to protect humanity's last hope: a pregnant refugee. In the Japanese chiller Pulse (2001), life-draining spirits invade the world of the living through computer screens, causing a rash of suicides and disappearances among Japan's youth. Lastly, in Train to Busan (2016), a zombie outbreak threatens passengers aboard a high-speed train in South Korea. Rather than band together, it's man eat man. In all, these movies suggest pandemics themselves are only part of the horror. Our responses to them often beget greater mayhem.
Children of Men (2006)
Train to Busan (2016)
Class & Corruption
COVID-19 brought social inequities into full, sobering view. The pandemic devastated working-class communities as the one percent grew richer. If this injustice does not boil your blood, these tales of the haves and have-nots will. In Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning Parasite (2019), a destitute but street-smart family crafts an ingenious plot: pose as domestic workers to infiltrate the home of an ultra-rich family. Their scheme goes hilariously—and then horrifically—awry. Bong suggests that although the lower and upper classes feed off one another, they can never coexist without conflict. The director's previous satire, The Host (2006), follows a similarly hardscrabble family whose young daughter is abducted by a Godzilla-like monster, who emerges from a polluted river to terrorize Seoul. Rather than aid civilians, the powers that be go to extraordinary lengths to cover up having dumped toxic waste into the river. Lastly, in John Carpenter's cult classic They Live (1988), an honest everyman discovers an alien plot to take over the world. After coming across a seemingly magic pair of sunglasses, he can see society's true nature: 1980s-era yuppies are extraterrestrial parasites in disguise.
The Host (2006)
They Live (1988)
In the throes of cabin fever, I recalled the rich artistic tradition of people driven mad by isolation. I only hope my delirium was less acute than those featured in the following films. In His House (2020), a South Sudanese refugee couple begins hearing sinister voices through the walls of their desolate housing project. Are they going mad, finally alone to stew in their traumas, or have the souls of those who perished at sea followed them to the UK? In Roman Polanski's English-language debut Repulsion (1965), Catherine Deneuve plays a young woman living in London during the Swinging Sixties. Eligible bachelors pursue her at every turn, but she harbors a pathological repulsion to intimacy. When her roommate goes on vacation, leaving her alone in her apartment, she suffers a psychosexual freakout to rival Natalie Portman's in Black Swan. Even more unsettling is Julianne Moore's withdrawn housewife in Safe (1995). Isolated in a suburban bubble of hairspray and formaldehyde, she begins experiencing sudden seizures, which doctors cannot diagnose. From a New Age health guru's teachings, she comes to believe that the chemicals in household cleaners, shampoos, processed foods, and more are to blame for her rapidly worsening affliction. In the above films, the distinction between real-life horrors and those of the mind blurs during isolation.
His House (2020)
There was no better time than during a government-mandated lockdown to nest with a new fling—or wish you were. I sadly fell into the latter camp, but movies offered a taste of romance. In Lost in Translation (2003), Scarlett Johansson is a young American woman visiting Tokyo with her neglectful husband. Adrift in a marriage of convenience, she forms an unlikely bond with another lost soul staying in her hotel: a fallen Hollywood star played by Bill Murray. The last-mentioned relationship is mostly platonic, but the heat between the main characters of The Last Mistress (2007) threatens to engulf 19th-century Paris. Ryno, a notorious libertine, attempts to cut off his quarrelsome affair with his Spanish lover, played with ferocity by Asia Argento. He has arranged to marry a respectable daughter of the French aristocracy, but his plans cannot quell their mutual erotic fixation. Lastly, in the operatic Cannes-winner Thirst (2009), a celibate priest receives a botched blood transfusion that infects him with vampirism. He succumbs to a life of sin, beginning a doomed love affair with a housewife who dreams of escaping her abusive in-laws. As these two lovers—both running from personal turmoil—collide, sex, murder, and copious bloodsucking ensue. Twilight could never.
Lost in Translation (2003)
The Last Mistress (2007)
Mask truthers notwithstanding, the pandemic showed most people endure hardship with remarkable courage. I often turn to a peculiar source of inspiration to realize my inner warrior: female avengers. In Elle (2016), the legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert plays a divorced executive who is attacked and sexually assaulted in her home. Rather than report the crime, she lures the masked assailant back in for his just desserts. Huppert rightfully won a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her work. In the iconic blaxploitation flick Foxy Brown (1974), Pam Grier takes down racist cops, pimps, and mafiosos to avenge the murder of her detective boyfriend. To quote a character who meets her wrath, she's a whole lot of woman. Lastly, in You're Next (2013), a group of masked slashers besieges a family reunion at a remote country house. The killers are expertly coordinated, but one family member's unassuming girlfriend turns out to be a secret badass. Using miscellaneous sharp objects, including a blender in one scene, she stages her counterattack. In all, these films' villains underestimate the heroines, which they, in turn, twist to their advantage.
Foxy Brown (1974)
You're Next (2011)
Here, the complete list of titles:
Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón (2006)
Pulse, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (2001)
Train to Busan, Yeon Sang-ho (2016)
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho (2019)
The Host, Bong Joon-ho (2006)
They Live, John Carpenter (1988)
His House, Remi Weekes (2020)
Repulsion, Roman Polanski (1965)
Safe, Todd Haynes (1995)
Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola (2003)
The Last Mistress, Catherine Breillat (2007)
Thirst, Park Chan-wook (2009)
Elle, Paul Verhoeven (2016)
Foxy Brown, Jack Hill (1974)
You're Next, Adam Wingard (2011)