TRAIN TO BUSAN PRESENTS: PENINSULA
Directed by Sang-ho Yeon
Regular visitors of this site may know I love Train To Busan. From the moment I first saw it at FrightFest, to my semi-regular watches at home, its been my favourite zombie film of all time and maybe my top ten full-stop. And though I didn’t have the same fondness for animated semi-prequel Seoul Station (that didn’t have the same zombie rules), there was a lot to like about it. So, when I heard original writer/ director Sang-ho Yeon was bringing the franchise back from the dead, for a return to the South Korean peninsula, I was overjoyed. That’s until the trailer dropped, hinting at a more action-heavy, and generic, approach to the same material – with new characters in a bigger world. To be fair, it starts excellently. Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), a military general, flees for the sea with his sister (Jang So-yeon), her husband Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), and his nephew Dong-hwan (Moon Woo-jin). They make it on to the last boat, leaving their now flaming homeland behind. However, tragedy strikes at sea.
Years later, Jung-seok and Chul-min stay in Hong Kong, where they’re looked down upon by the locals and struggle to make ends meet. Loss and feelings of guilt about what happened as they left South Korea haunt each man. So, when it turns out that one way they can improve their lot in life involves returning to the all-but abandoned peninsula, to pick up a van filled with money for a local crime boss, there’s some initial hesitation. However, after agreeing to go Jung-seok, Chul-min and the team are initially successful. Only, their extraction doesn’t go nearly as smoothly. The undead are no problem – here, they’re more like background noise than a full threat. However, as anyone who has seen a zombie flick, or tv show, from the last few decades knows, humans can be worse than the horde. Especially if they’re in small groups competing for limited resources.
Often zombie films use this Malthusian scenario as a means of showing humankind’s moral lapse outside the good influences of law and order. To an extent, we have this in Peninsula, since we have the expected greed and bloodlust on full display. The new society isn’t a nice place, and nor should it be. Nonetheless, the ultimate goal for our leads is to secure the money so they can access high society in Hong Kong. It’s broadly in line with the condemnatory approach the trilogy has thus far had towards capitalism and provides an exciting incentive for characters to go back to South Korea. Still, the heist angle means the storytelling is more plot-driven and other than the characters wanting to leave the place they’re visiting there’s not much of a dramatic hook. The trapping of this new genre also means that we have the usual double-crosses, none of which you won’t have seen before, and a contrived race against the clock. However, it isn’t just about the situation per se – the characters are also a significant problem with Peninsula.
Whereas most zombie films put ordinary characters in an extraordinary situation, this one puts extraordinary characters in an extraordinary one. They are never against the odds in a meaningful way. For starters, Jung Seok is a crack shot – capable of taking down numerous zombies and people alike without missing, even in the movie’s many tiresome car-chase sequences. As actions scenes go, they’re accomplished enough – if in need of a good editor. Though he’s too overpowered, making it so the stand-in human society seems more like an inconvenience than a direct threat. It’d help if we felt they were his equal, but they’re mostly just a typical gallery of rogues, and the scariest of them is still played for laughs. In the likes of an Arnie film, where the dick-swinging machismo is almost played for parody on both sides of the conflict, this is fine. Likewise, where Snake Plissken is concerned. In a survival horror scenario though, it, unfortunately, undermines the suspense. One can make something as fun Mad Max, or as grave as 28 Days Later. Though it’s challenging to combine the two into something that works.
Then there’s sisters Joon and Yu-Jin –young prodigies who mow through the horde with a combo of bullet-time hand-break turns and remote-control car shenanigans. Though funny, their scenes detract from the otherwise darker tone of the piece and make the zombies seem far less threatening. They work, but would not as part of this film. Their mother’s understated “I told you not to go outside” is a humorous enough punchline. However, it feels far more like something from Zombieland than the post-apocalyptic thriller this film often resembles. There are some inspired set pieces – a mostly single arena sequence, involving a zombie rat-king, is an excellent bit of organised chaos. Still, while the spectacle is grander than either predecessor, Peninsula it isn’t close to being as tense. There are none of the moments audiences will hold their breaths with the characters, and I was seldom worried for any of them.
It’s also less heartfelt, with Jung Seok’s survival guilt providing the closest we have to an emotional character arc. When the film does try to do something dramatic in its final third, it watches like a re-tread of Train to Busan – down to very similar plot beats. The melodrama is largely unearned though, with the lacklustre character relationships not packing much of a punch despite the shameless plot contrivances and excessive slow-motion used to give them gravity. Train to Busan used zombies as a Trojan horse for family drama, and though Peninsula does a bit of this its ultimately far more hollow. I’m glad Sang-ho Yeon hasn’t just given us a replacement service. Though without the same emotion, terror and suspense, he gives us far less of a thrill ride than last time, to a less satisfying destination. It may not be the end of the line for the series, though I hope next time he takes a different route.
TRAIN TO BUSAN PRESENTS: PENINSULA hits UK cinemas 6th November 2020 followed by a home release on 30th November 2020. For more info, visit www.peninsulamovie.co.uk