Written by: Sang-ho Yeon, Ryu Yong-jae
Directed by: Sang-ho Yeon
Starring: Dong-won Gang, Jung-hyun Lee, Re Lee
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
4 years later...
One of the most remarkable things about Train to Busan is that it was remarkable at all. For a zombie film to leave any sort of impression at all in 2016ówhen the undead wave was very much rolling backówas quite a feat. Even more remarkable was how director Sang-ho Yeon and co-writer Joo-Suk Park navigated a typically moribund, rigid formula with a nimble, light touch. On paper, Train to Busan looks an awful lot like other undead movies; on the screen, it comes to life with a thrilling, rousing vibrancy that provided much-needed counterprogramming to the likes of The Walking Dead, where audiences regularly witnessed beloved characters succumb to an unrelenting parade of misery. Leaving a zombie movie with uplifted spirits wasnít exactly new, but it was refreshing.
Four years later, Yeon returns with Peninsula, a follow-up of sorts. Set in the same world of the original film, it features no returning characters but tries to inject that filmís spirit into a different kind of sequel. In a familiar turn of events, Yeon leans on escalation: Peninsula is a bigger, more grandiose vision of this universe, one that weaves multiple stories through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The result is equally familiar, as this follow-up doesnít completely miss the mark but still fails to live up to its predecessor. Itís perhaps the most common fate for sequels that are content to rely on a larger scope and more spectacle: bigger isnít always better. Sometimes itís just more of the same.
Most of Peninsula unfolds four years into the undead pandemic thatís gripped the globe and reduced the Korean peninsula to a quarantined wasteland. But before settling there, it briefly flashes back to the early days of the outbreak, where marine corps captain Jung-Seok (Gang Dong-won) and his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) are desperate to escape to Hong Kong with their family, so much so that they breeze by helpless families stranded on the roadside in need of help. Itís all for naught, though, when an outbreak aboard their escape ship claims the lives of Jung-Seokís sister and nephew.
When we catch up with them years later, he and his estranged brother-in-law are a couple of guilt-ridden, barfly burnouts who capture the attention of Chinese mobsters looking to recruit a crew to return to the peninsula and retrieve a cache American money. Predictably, the heist goes awry when the crew runs afoul of a rogue militia group thatís turned the region into their own demented, undead funhouse. Now separated, Jung-Seok and Chul-min must navigate the zombie apocalypse with the unexpected help of a ragtag family thatís also been surviving on the Peninsula.
Peninsula immediately departs from its predecessor with an increased scope and scale. Where Train to Busan is a claustrophobic, intimate affair, this one sprawls out, weaving multiple narratives through a crazy quilt of colorful characters and outlandish action sequences. Itís essentially Escape from New York with zombies, right down to the militiaís thirst for bloodsport, which they quench by forcing wayward travellers into an arena with the undead and take bets on the survivors. Despite clocking in at nearly two hours, itís a brisk enough affair, packed with plenty of action sequences, including a dazzling long take that captures one of these deranged games, not to mention multiple car chases that find vehicles plowing through undead mounds. As a result, it tends to feel a little more weightless and sprightly than the original movie: Peninsula is primarily preoccupied with staging as much thrilling mayhem as possible.
But it doesnít completely abandon the spirit of its predecessor, either. Like that film, itís also invested with its characters, particularly these two brothers-in-law who are still reeling from the loss of their family. The two are so at odds that theyíve essentially taken this job so they can be rid of each other: once they have their share, theyíve pledged to split up so they donít have to remind each other of their failure. An obvious irony arises with their separation: suddenly, theyíre desperate to reunite and leave this lawless, undead land, and Yeon forges a nice emotional backbone for the film with these two. I spent some time wondering if Peninsula was really working, but the moment these two reunite leaves no doubt: in some moments, this one packs as much of an emotional punch as the original, especially during Yeonís brief fits of ruthlessness with these characters.
Likewise, it also boats a lively supporting cast, especially the family that comes to Jung-seokís aid. The two daughters (Lee Re & Lee Ye-won) provide an unexpectedly precocious wavelength as they drive cars and pilot remote-controlled vehicles to clear paths through the undead hordes, while their eccentric grandfather (Kwon Hae-hyo) has reimagined the family unit as a military platoon. Matriarch Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) emerges as the filmís third wheel of sorts, bringing a cynical edge as a woman who rightfully feels as though sheís been abandoned. A predictable (if not heavily belabored) narrative contrivance emerges involving this family to give Jung-seok a redemption arc, and, however hackneyed it may be, thereís no doubt the film is fully invested in it. Peninsula is nothing if not brazenly sentimental in its insistence on redemption and the inherent goodness of humanity, something thatís quite atypical for this genre. Most zombie sequels want to deliver three times the amount of gore; this one wants you to tear up three times as much as you did in the original.
Itís just enough to make all the difference this time around, too. But where Train to Busan sprinted through its familiar formula with a nimble zipiness, Peninsula strains and wheezes its way to the finish line. This isnít for lack of trying, though, because the climax is a delirious sugar rush of a demolition derby involving shootouts, vehicular carnage, and the undead literally raining from the sky. Yeonís grandiose vision for a bigger sequel betrays him a bit here because the low-budget seams (the dreary, pallid CGI cityscapes, the cartoonish zombie effects) start to fray, and the last-ditch attempt to stitch it back together with overwrought sentiment is more sappy than it is profound. He might not completely lose sight of the humanity guiding these movies, but he definitely takes his eye off of it long enough that Peninsula starts to feel a little empty and exhausting.
Peninsula also highlights the conundrum of sequels that dare to go off in a different direction. If not for the Train to Busan branding, this could easily pass for just another zombie movie, the likes of which weíve seen plenty of times before. And yet, I also canít imagine a situation where a sequel was simply set on another train, either. Yeon sharply recognizes that his rousing, sentimental tone is what defines this franchise, no matter the setting. You canít fault him for taking such an approach: after all, it worked out for George Romero, whose cynicism and social insight provided a tonal unity to his Living Dead series. But where those movies felt vital and fresh with each reimagining, Train to Busan already feels a bit stale, largely because it doesnít engage with anything beyond its own maudlin sentiment by placing it in a larger context.
And thatís fine. Certainly, no filmmaker is under any obligation to directly engage with their sociopolitical context. Itís just a little disappointing that Peninsula is an unwitting movie of the moment, one that opens not just with a pandemic but with the racist fallout surrounding it, as marginalized Koreans face ostracization and discrimination. Hong Kong, a flashpoint of 21st century political activism, simply becomes another setting in this rat race as various characters chase down a cache of money. Even the obvious economic implications are muted by Yeonís elevation of more universal themes of cooperation and redemption. Again, thatís understandableófar be it from me to dictate what someone elseís art should be. I just wish Peninsula had aspired to be more than a bigger, louder sequel when it had the potential to be much more.
Peninsula is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Ultra HD from Well Go USA.
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