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A group of terrified passengers fight their way through a countrywide viral outbreak, while trapped on a suspicion-filled, blood-drenched bullet train ride to the Safe Zone…which may or may not still be there. (From Well Go USA’s official synopsis)

 Train to Busan
It’s almost hard to imagine a time when zombie fiction was unpopular, following the subgenre’s new millennial ‘second renaissance,’ but during the ‘90s, George Romero couldn’t find funding for a third Dead film and only the STV market dared admit any interest. Japan was ahead of the curb with goofy zombie throwbacks like Tetsuro Takeuchi’s Wild Zero (1999) and Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus (2000), followed by Danny Boyle’s British-made 28 Days Later (2002), a popular Hollywood remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (2004), small market/foreign releases (Marek Dobes’ Czech-made Choking Hazard, 2004; Yorgos Noussias’s Greek-made Evil, 2005; and Taweewat Wantha’s Thai-made SARS Wars, 2004), and, eventually, a massive, star-driven blockbuster treatment called World War Z (directed by Marc Forster, 2013). This isn’t even to mention cable television’s long-standing mega-hit, The Walking Dead. South Korea took a little longer to embrace the westernized concept of zombism in movies than some other territories, but, when they did, the resulting film – Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (Korean: Busanhaeng) – managed to shatter local box-office records and develop substantial buzz throughout the rest of the world, where the novelty of zombies has worn off considerably. People do still watch The Walking Dead in droves, but I assume that the show scratches a survivalist/dystopia itch for most viewers and that few are tuning in for flesh-eating mayhem. So what, if anything, does Train to Busan have to offer the jaded horror fan?

Anyone who has been paying attention to modern Korean cinema is already aware that the best post-‘90s Korean films are thematically rooted in the region’s ongoing political struggles. What they might not know is that these movies are often popular, because they are so blatant in their societal indictments. For example, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (Korean: Goemul; literal translation: Monster, 2006) directly confronts decades of American military influence. The Host seems to have been an important reference point for Yeon and screenwriter Park Joo-suk. Both films have pro-environmental/anti-imperialist themes and revolve around fractured family units that grow closer, due to the influence of monsters. Bong’s film takes a more unique approach with a more unusual family dynamic and a proletarian point of view. Train to Busan begins its horror story with the kind of business-class divorce plot that already populates dozens of Hollywood disaster movies. While the lead’s (Seok-Woo, played by Gong Yoo) job as a fund manager does is key to the allegorical shorthand (he rejects his selfishness and joins the train’s rejected ‘class’), it does more to define him as an archetype, which further ties the film to its Hollywood counterparts. That said, the allegorical ‘us vs. them’ conflict at the center of the film still packs a punch, even if the outcome is entirely predictable, because the themes are still relevant (especially given the current refugee crisis facing the world).

 Train to Busan
Before Train to Busan, Yeon made a name for himself directing/writing/co-animating/voicing mature-themed animated shorts and movies. His two feature-length efforts, The King of Pigs (Korean: Dwae-ji-ui wang, 2011) and The Fake (Korean: Saibi, 2013) were met with fantastic reviews, won numerous awards, and were released on US Blu-ray/DVD by Olive films earlier in 2016 – he even made an animated prequel to Train to Busan called Seoul Station (it was released a month after the original film). This animation experience probably accounts for the film’s methodically constructed actions sequences, most of which appear to have designed via extensive storyboarding, itself a cartoon production requirement. These dynamic instincts are set early with the deliberately-paced first act. Here, Yeon sets an eerily desolate tone as the dread of societal collapse and mass-scale murder creep into the peripherals of the story. Following this, he tidily portrays the chaotic spread of insect-like throngs of living-dead aboard the train and introduces his supporting characters. The attention to fine details and construction makes it a lot easier to excuse the boilerplate qualities of the ethical arguments in confined spaces.

Video


According to specs, Train to Busan was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras. While the heavy colour grading certainly marks the use of digital production, the grain texture and contrast levels actually remind me quite a bit of a film-based production. It is possible that Well Go USA’s disc is a little over-compressed (which has been an issue for some of the company’s other releases), but I believe that Yeon and cinematographer Lee Hyung-deok intended most of this noise texture. This mix of extreme colour control and grittiness creates a unique, though sometimes sort of obnoxious overall look that has been well-maintained by this 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer. Fine details are tightly knit, including sharp foreground textures and complex background patterns, and there aren’t any obvious edge haloes. The stark colour timing pushes electric yellows and blues over all natural hues and takes some getting used to. It’s not quite as aggressive as it may appear in the random screen-caps I’m using for this review, but it’s definitely strange. Fortunately, the hue quality is still quite vibrant and there’s little sign of the banding issues that plagued earlier Well Go releases.

 Train to Busan

Audio


Train to Busan comes fitted with a massive Korean language DTS:X (DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 core) soundtrack. The dialogue-driven sequences are light on environmental ambience, but I assume that this relative silence is meant to create contrast between character drama and the zombie attacks. The range between quiet chats and snarling, barking hordes is certainly aggressive and the directional support is widely spread. Jang Young-gyu’s orchestral score drives like a kettle-drum freight train through the action sequences and fills out the stereo/surround channels very impressively. More impressive, however, is the fact that Jang doesn’t recycle too many cues – almost every big action sequence has its own theme and, while not all of them are great, I appreciate the effort. Those that prefer to watch the English dub can get the gist of the Korean track’s impact, thanks to a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 option. The dub isn’t awful, yet the effects/music tracks are very similar to their Korean counterparts.

Extras


  • Behind-the-scenes footage (13:01, HD) – A montage of raw footage from the set.
  • That’s A Wrap (4:35, HD) – Much of the same footage, plus parting words from the cast & crew.
  • Trailer and trailers for other Well Go USA releases


 Train to Busan

Overall


Train to Busan makes little effort to reinvent the zombie genre and arguably even fails to bring anything new to the table, but it is brimming with pure entertainment value and its socio-political messages would probably make George Romero proud. Well Go USA has done a nice job with the film’s North American Blu-ray debut, too, despite a lack of meaty extras (a double feature with the animated prequel, Seoul Station, would’ve been great). The picture is clean and the DTS:X soundtrack is wonderfully aggressive.

 Train to Busan

 Train to Busan

 Train to Busan
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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