The following is a review of Train to Busan: Peninsula (‘반도’) — Directed by Yeon Sang-ho.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cinephiles have stayed away from their beloved cinemas for several months, but, at the end of July, I finally went back to the movie theater. Now, obviously, I should say that this was only possible for me because I live in Denmark where movie theaters have been open since the end of May 2020. Please note that you should absolutely only go to the movie theaters if it is safe to do so where you live. But I will say that it was good to be back, even though the movie that I returned to the movie theater to watch maybe didn’t give me the escapism that I may have needed. After all, this is a movie about a dangerous epidemic in an Asian country that leads to quarantines and lockdowns. Nevertheless, I was very happy to be able to watch a new movie in an actual movie theater for the first time in several months. Again, it was good to be back.
Yeon Sang-ho’s Peninsula is a standalone sequel to the 2016 zombie apocalypse hit film, Train to Busan (also directed by Yeon Sang-ho), that takes place four years after the events of the previous film. The film follows a former soldier from South Korea, Jung-seok (played by Gang Dong-won), who, during the outbreak, escaped from the Korean Peninsula and made it to Hong Kong along with his brother-in-law, Chul-min (played by Kim Do-yoon). Chul-min and Jung-seok, however, are haunted by their memories of the zombie apocalypse outbreak.
Guilt-ridden and aimless, Chul-min and Jung-seok finally find something to do when a group of local Hong Kong-criminals (and an American) give them an offer that they feel compelled to accept. Alongside two other Koreans, Chul-min and Jung-seok are tasked with returning to the Korean Peninsula, which is still overrun by zombies, for the purpose of locating and retrieving $20 million in cash from an abandoned truck. It is presented to them as a simple job, since these zombies are, apparently, basically blind at night. But they soon find out that this mission is tougher than they initially imagined and not just because of the zombies. Because, as it turns out, they won’t be the only people alive on the Korean Peninsula.
2016’s Train to Busan is one of my favorite zombie films ever made. It is just a well-designed film with an inventive and exciting main location for a zombie apocalypse film. It is essentially Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer as a zombie movie since both films are mainly set on trains and both films, to some extent, are about social classes. Train to Busan was a gripping and thrilling class-conscious zombie film, and I, frankly, loved every minute of it. Unfortunately, I don’t think Peninsula, its standalone sequel, reaches the heights that the original film did.
In reality, this film is really more of a blend of the zombie cliches and tropes and the Mad Max-films. Yeon Sang-ho is clearly inspired by George Miller. There are gladiator-like scenes that made me think of the ‘Thunderdome’ from the third Mad Max-film, and there are several elaborate car chases that are clearly inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road, but the chases are nowhere near as impressive as they were in Miller’s action masterpiece. The film also suffers from the classic Jurassic Park sequel-problem. Why would you ever return to an island, or in this case a peninsula, which is literally the most dangerous place on earth? The reason for going back in Peninsula was just not compelling or convincing enough for me, as an audience member, to accept the decision and identify with the main characters. As Ian Malcolm from the Jurassic Park-films would say, the film’s characters “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
When you are about to watch supernatural films, like zombie films, it is often best to check your realism at the door before you sit down to watch them. This is true for Peninsula as well. Some pivotal scenes and sequences are just not realistic at all. The car chases are brought to life via visual effects that are not always convincing, and the car crashes are sometimes too wild, violent, or uncontrolled to be survived by the film’s characters. For example, the film expects you to accept the idea that streetwise teenagers in a post-apocalyptic South Korea can drive and drift like the best drivers in the world.
My only minor problem with the first film was its use of overly melodramatic loud music in emotional scenes. It was only really an issue at the end of the first film, where it became a little bit too melodramatic with Seok-woo’s flashback at the very end of the film, but the sequel has way too many of these moments. Loud piano music tends to overwhelm the film’s most emotional or powerful scenes, which I think is a shame. It didn’t take me out of the first film, but I thought it became jarring in Peninsula.
Also, while the film’s prologue, which showcases the outbreak, is thrilling, I have to say that the scene with an American late-night talk-show is entirely unconvincing. That is just a minor problem with the film, of course. Again, that prologue is pretty good, and, in general, the action in the film is exciting. Admittedly, the action is never as exciting as the fights from the first film were, but I actually really loved seeing the capable main character take charge in various action scenes. I also think that the aforementioned gladiator-like sequences were completely engrossing and thrilling.
My favorite thing about the movie is the comic relief. At one point, Jung-seok runs into two sisters — Yu-jin (played by Lee Ye-won) and Jooni (played by Lee Re) — that are so fun to watch. Jooni is the aforementioned teenage driver who gets to paraphrase a popular quote from Terminator to Jung-seok and, at the same time, channel Furiosa while behind the wheel. Yu-jin is her high-spirited little sister, who collects remote-controlled cars that she sometimes uses to get the attention of zombie hordes. This is a post-apocalyptic film that can be very bleak, but every now and then Lee Ye-won and Lee Re’s characters put a smile on your face.
Again, Jung-Seok was a great character to follow as he was given plenty of action sequences that were thoroughly entertaining, but I was disappointed with his character arc because it, frankly, resembles the first film’s main character arc too much. In the end, both films argue that their main characters need to show compassion for, and help, those in need. I expected a different character arc in the sequel, but the film didn’t really deliver in that regard.
With Peninsula, Yeon Sang-ho has made a thematically less ambitious but more visual effects-heavy zombie flick. In large part due to triteness, Yeon, unfortunately, fails to reach the heights of Train to Busan, but, even though this sequel is a little bit of a disappointment, the film definitely has its moments.
6.5 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.