Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writers: Joo-Suk Park, Sang-ho Yeon
Starring: Dong-Won Gang, Jung-hyun Lee, Re Lee, Hae-hyo Kwon
Genre: Action, Horror, Thriller
It’s no secret that zombie movies are looking as well worn as their central monster. There’s little left to explore within this horror subgenre. For every film that does manage to uncover something new, there are another ten each year that fail. It’s therefore all the more impressive that South Korean zombie flick, Train to Busan, is not only memorable, but it’s also considered to be one of the quintessential films in the genre. It features a brutally exciting and perilous journey that cements familial relationships and analyzes class divide. It’s on Netflix if you haven’t seen it yet.
Now there’s a sequel. It goes without saying that Train to Busan will be a tough act to follow. To just be on par with it will mean that lightning has struck twice. Our expectations are high nonetheless.
Violence/Scary Images: This is a fast-moving zombie film, where hordes of undead corpses will emerge from dark places and run towards people to try to eat them. Most zombies feature some dried blood on their face; there’s only the occasional zombie that looks more like a withered corpse. They’ll contort themselves and charge in scary ways. Surprisingly there are no close up shots of the zombies eating people; very little gore. Most wounds seen are from gunshots. Lots of gun violence towards zombies and between different groups of survivors. Characters contemplate suicide by shooting themselves in the head. A person is stabbed in the face. There are car crash sequences and multiple times where zombies are run over.
Language/Crude Humor: Mild derogatory exchanges.
Drug/Alcohol References: Alcohol is drunk to excess. It is considered a prized possession.
Sexual Content: Two men imply they’re in a sexual relationship as a way to distract someone else.
Spiritual Content: No references to religion apart from some writings on the ground about God forsaking those that live amongst the infected.
Other Negative Content: A major theme involves the problems surrounding lawlessness and corruption. The humans in this movie are incredibly callous to each other, referring to outsiders as dogs and pitting them in death matches.
Positive Content: The film displays the humanity of helping someone in need, and promotes trying everything one can to save another’s life.
It’s been four years since the events seen in Train to Busan. When the southern parts of South Korea inevitably fell to the zombie virus, the remaining survivors turned towards the Incheon peninsula as their last hope for safety within the country. It failed. Some refugees made it to Hong Kong, but it wasn’t long till other nations closed their borders to South Korea, effectively quarantining them from the rest of the world. The idea of leaving an entire country to suffer the catastrophic effects of a virus is meant to be shocking, but it’s 2020 and the audience doesn’t bat an eyelid.
That’s the opening spiel, with the exposition being dumped through some stilted news broadcasts intercut with a few decent action scenes. As some of you may have picked up already, Peninsula is only a loose sequel to Train to Busan. You don’t need to watch (or rewatch) the first film in order to understand the events in this movie (although you should Train to Busan anyway because it’s brilliant). The only things that crossover aside from the South Korean setting are the zombie rules: the undead can run, they’re blind at night, and they’re attracted to sound. That’s it. That’s all you need to know and even that small amount of information is splattered in through expository dialogue.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to not compare Peninsula to other films within the horror and action genre, because the plot is so reminiscent of many other titles. Train to Busan sits more firmly as a horror, filled with many suspenseful and terrifying moments. Meanwhile Peninsula is more of an action extravaganza, rarely slowing enough to really soak in the dread of the hordes of undead. This is more of an observation rather than a criticism—after all, Alien and its sequel, Aliens, featured the same subtle shift in genre.
Just like the James Cameron film (and just about any other horror movie sequel, really), Peninsula delivers a strong “Call to Adventure” story beat, where the film must provide the audience with an extremely good reason as to why anyone in their right mind would return to a place that is essentially a death trap. It’s a crucial moment in the plot and Peninsula pulls it off, intriguingly teasing viewers with the potential of being a zombie heist movie hybrid. Those two subgenres aren’t commonly seen together, so for a time the movie is excitingly unique with its direction.
Expectations are set and then dashed. Suddenly the audience is thrown Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior vibes as it starts to establish an alternative, post-apocalyptic culture. It’s still interesting, but fans of The Walking Dead have seen this storyline before. It’s the old concept of humans being more monstrous than the monsters. One can’t help but wonder if the film could’ve been more engaging if it stuck more with its original premise instead of changing tack towards a more generic direction.
Then it happens again in the final act, with the plot disintegrating into nothing more than a massive car chase sequence, like it’s channelling something from The Fast and the Furious. There’s nothing wrong with each separate idea, except Peninsula masters none of the subgenres it represents. It therefore doesn’t make a definitive stance on its identity or carve out a niche in the zombie film market. It’s just a bland blur of mildly interesting scenes strung together.
A number of intriguing character arcs would’ve tied the movie together more coherently, though none of the roles have any real depth to explore. Train to Busan centred on a strained relationship between a father and son, surrounded by an amazing supporting cast with clearly defined personalities. The audience cared more and more for them as the story progressed.
The characters in Peninsula, however, never develop any sense of rapport with the audience. Protagonist Jung Seok’s internal conflict feels shoehorned in, with his crippling guilt not entirely justified in the scenario that was presented to the viewer. More annoyingly is that he gets two chances to address his fears, and the different outcomes ultimately muddy the film’s final message. One decision, while understandable from his perspective, seems futile in the eyes of the audience. It doesn’t end up emotionally paying off since there’s little to no time for the characters to develop a bond in the film, causing it to feel more like a plot device; an excuse to escalate the action, as opposed to a solid moment with gravitas. The ending faces the same issue—it tries to cash in on the feelings the audience has built towards the main characters, except there’s nothing to invest.
Jung Seok is a rather bland protagonist, but that can be forgiveable. Unfortunately the suspension of disbelief is worn too thin in the other areas of the story for it to cover up the weakness of its main role. For instance, people are able to drive through the quiet streets of Incheon as there’s conveniently enough space to weave amongst all the abandoned cars. Ok, not entirely plausible, but it’s something seen in a lot of these types of movies so the audience lets it slide. Then the film shows numerous cars speeding and drifting around all the obstacles. Ok…The unrealistic CGI sometimes pulls the audience out of the moment, but for the most part it looks cool, it provides some excitement, so viewers also let that slide. Except the best driver in the film is a prepubescent teen. Now that willingness to believe certain things begins to crumble.
Jooni is a child supporting character that is the survival-guru equivalent of Aliens’ Newt, and displaying the same savvy spirit as The Walking Dead’s Glenn Rhee. Yet she doesn’t foster the same amount of fondness from the audience as the aforementioned roles. One has to ask whether it’s because she’s an amazing female driver? If she were a boy, would the audience be more accepting of this character? Is this an example where the viewer’s unconscious sexist beliefs have bubbled to the surface?
No, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It took a fair amount of reflection to really pinpoint why Jooni’s character doesn’t work. There are two reasons. Firstly, her driving ability is also her one identifying character trait. Is this a result of male screenwriters not knowing how to write empowering female characters? There does tend to be a bad habit of overemphasizing the prowess of a skill when it comes to female action roles as opposed to developing a grounded, multi-layered character. In this way, if Jooni were a boy, would the character have been written as more well-rounded because the screenwriters would be more confident in their ability? Maybe. We’ll never know. Either way, the film sheds an air of desperation about the character, as though it screams, “You’ll like her because she’s cool!” Well, it somewhat works, but the ploy is ultimately on-the-nose and unconvincing. It just tries too hard to get the audience on her and her little sister’s side. What’s worse is that there’s no real explanation as to why she’s so good (aside from the audience assuming it’s because she grew up in this post-apocalyptic world and therefore developed those skills out of necessity). Her skills aren’t earned and she’s no Anakin Skywalker with the power of the Force as a convenient plot device.
The second reason, which might be the more prominent explanation, is that this type of character is usually seen in children’s movies. Kids are cast as the hero because those films are targeted to kids. Children don’t relate to adult problems, they don’t understand the larger issues of the world, and they instinctually know they’re not as capable as grown ups. So that’s why powerful, competent child protagonists really resonate with them, even though all the parents in the cinema will roll their eyes.
Peninsula is not a film for children. It’s not a hard-hitting horror film (in fact it’s pretty mild with its scares), but it’s still not family fare. So it’s irritating to come from watching Train to Busan’s mature themes and intense terror to a sequel that spends way too much of its time engaging with children’s power-tripping fantasies. Newt works in Aliens because she has no real agency in the film; she’s still treated like a child even though she’s a respected survivor. Whereas there are way too many characters in Peninsula that are given too much trust in their abilities than the situation allows. The audience is cheated out of a plot consisting of a specially selected team to perform a risky heist on a zombie-infested island, and instead served scenes that feel like they belong in Spy Kids. The initial direction the film undertook just sounds like a way more awesome movie. Now excuse me while I go and write that screenplay.
I haven’t said many good things about this movie. It’s because it’s rather average. It’s not a bad film; the production design is magnificent and for the most part the cinematography is beautiful (although there are a handful of times where the action becomes a little hard to follow with how it’s edited). Due to its production values, one can see how it might have achieved the honor of being part of the Cannes Film Festival, although its plot and central characters are underwhelming. There are certainly worse films in the zombie genre, but there are also a number of better ones. Peninsula merely sits middle of the road.
+ Production elements
+ Decent world-building
+ Some good action sequences
- Story elements are reminiscent of other, better films
- Changes direction too often to claim a niche
- Audience barely develops any feelings for the characters
- Wrong choice of supporting characters for the genre of film
- Strained suspension of disbelief
The Bottom Line
Peninsula is Train to Busan’s sequel only regarding its setting. It can provide an entertaining ride if the viewer isn’t familiar with all the narratives already explored ad nauseam in The Walking Dead. It features some cool scenes, but ultimately there’s not enough character development to really deliver the emotional payoff it requires.