Valentine, one of my three kupe-mates from Vladivostok to Irkutsk, with a smoked fish.
Last night I finally got a chance to watch Transsiberian, the 2008 thriller/noir by Brad Anderson starring Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer and Ben Kingsley. I stay away from horror films usually; I'm too susceptible to fear and anxiety on the screen because I've stayed away from the medium of moving image - to my detriment - for so long. I am not properly anestecized to it. But because of my own trip across Russia, from Vladivostok to Moscow in the spring of 2006, I had an interest in seeing how the train and the Russian culture and environment are depicted.
Anderson gets a lot right: the isolation of being alone in a foreign country; the difficulties of not speaking the language or understanding custom; the harshness of Russian faces and seeming hostility toward foreigners, particularly Americans; the confinement and discomfort of the train; the vastness of Siberia; and the lawlessness and corruption of Russia.
In the two main characters, Roy and Jesse, Anderson paints the divergent approaches to a foreign environment. Roy is carefree and joyful, bounding with enthusiasm for the train, the landscape, the food and the people. He has no sense of self-consciousness, suspicion or danger. Their cabin mates tell him that he is obviously an American. Jesse, who has more worldly experience, finds it difficult to trust those on the train who try to befriend them. She is not as naive as Roy and is made apprehensive by her observations of others.
When their cabin mates ask to see their passports, Roy offers his up with nothing to hide. Jesse is suspicious of their cabin mates' intentions. Her suspicions are clear in her expression and this in turn causes the cabin mates to watch her more closely, a cycle of inhibitions and suspiscions that escalates to fear.
In the dining car, a neighbor tells them the story of a traveler who did not have the proper Visa for Russia and was detained for 28 days, interrogated, tortured with knives and the removal of two toes, and forced to pay $5000 for release. After the story, he tells them to take care and limps off through the car. Jesse and Roy try to laugh it off as a story meant to scare them, choosing to not believe it.
Later, an old man joins in a show-and-tell of scars by flashing a tattoo on his right forearm. "What did you do?" Jesse asks. "He wrote poetry," another Russian explains.
As Americans, our understanding of lawlessness is remote and cursory. We see photos of war-torn countries in the newspaper, we read of authoritarianism in books or see government and criminal violence in movies, but we can't conceive of the world as a place where the police or government can't be relied on to uphold individual rights. Yes, there is plenty of police brutality, government fraud, drug dealing and theft in the U.S. but ours is basically a civil, orderly society where laws protect injustice.
One can't move through Russia, particularly Eastern Russia and particularly alone, without facing the terror of a country where people disappear, where the justice system has no credibility, where those appointed to protect citizens are corrupt. This realization can be terrifying.
I'm floundering on chapter 2 of my book because I am yet unable to capture my own terror in the face of lawlessness. I too struggled against the isolation of being alone, without language and cultural understanding, in a place far more vast and more notorious for disappearance than any other. I didn't know who to trust, how to read faces, what to believe. After some questionable decisions and finding myself in a situation I could not understand, I became unhinged and fled back to Japan. It took me two weeks to come down. If you've never feared for your life at the hands of someone ruthless and practiced enough to take it, that fear in others is easy to dismiss.
Indeed, the movie has been criticized for being over the top, fantastical, unrealistic. The sequence of events in Transsiberian is fictional, their nature is non-fictional.
At one point in the movie, Roy says, "We're Americans!" His torturer laughs at him with jealousy, mocking, and defiance. Saying that you're American - either to yourself or to someone you fear - is a plea for justice, an assertion that a government somewhere cares about your well-being. It is also, in Russia, an admittance that you are a stranger to the more raw aspects of human nature, naive, helpless, a victim in a strange land. It is a statement of either defiance or surrender, depending on who you're talking to.