The world can change in an instant, and in Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula, everything happens at top speed and mercy is seen as a liability. this sequel to the highly successful zombie thriller Train To Busan, by director Yeon Sang-Ho, South Korea has become a desolate wasteland of crumbling buildings, violent factions, and a predictable plot. Like any fan of the 2016 film, I waited with anxious anticipation to see what Yeon and his co-writer Ryu Jyong-Jae had in store for us. I wondered if the same tension that grips me during my many re-watches of the first film, would take hold of me during Peninsula. Would the characters be just as interesting and brave? Would there be a new perspective on the zombie genre that would set it apart from others? And in a sense Peninsula has all of these attributes, just not in the way I was expecting.
The absolute irony of me writing this review while North America is still grappling with the COVID 19 pandemic because people refuse to simply wear a mask and respect other’s personal space, even after watching how South Korea was the first nation to get a handle on the spread of the virus by instituting strict rules for social distancing, quarantine, travel and provided aid to other countries – the complete opposite of what happens in the film – is not lost on me in the least.
Beginning just after the initial outbreak, our lead, soldier Jeong Seok (Gang Dang-Won) is driving his older sister, her husband, and their young son Dong-Hwan (Moon Woo Jin) to a military checkpoint for emergency transport out of the country. Along the way, he slows down for a family pleading for help, but he doesn’t stop. Leaving them behind. The scene switches to a late-night televised interview with an American news anchor and her guest who’s unable to give any helpful information other than the virus started in an unnamed bio-factory, and the safe zone of Busan was eventually destroyed. The host makes a comment about the outbreak happening before the reunification, making North Korea protected from the fast-spreading epidemic (art imitates life in the strangest ways, does it not?), and South Korea heading for disaster after the government fell in one day.
Rather than sending in military support and humanitarian aid, other world governments decide to annex the entire country, leaving those unable to find their way to the evacuation ships, to fend for themselves, and as to be expected the country eventually becomes overrun with the infected. Four years later Jeong Seok and his brother-in-law Chul Min (Kim Do Yoon) are living in Hong Kong. There they face ridicule and scorn as refugees from the Peninsula, being told to go back to their ghettos and be vaccinated. With no other viable options, Jeong Seok agrees to go on a heist of a gold shipment in an abandoned truck sitting on a highway in Incheon. Their new boss rather unconvincingly tries to assure them that everything should go smoothly as this has been done before by another team, who died doing this mind you. He reminds them that as long as they operate under the cover of darkness, avoid attracting the zombies by using bright lights and making too much noise, they should be fine. They have three days from drop-off to make it happen or be left stranded in the city.
Not surprisingly, things quickly go to hell in a handbasket. Out of nowhere, flares are lit, the team accompanying Jeong Seok panics and zombies go on the attack. Chul Min gets separated from the group, and as Jeong Seok is about to meet his maker, an SUV speeds into framing running over the zombies just in the nick of time. At the wheel is a young girl who tells him to get in or die. From the trailers, it was obvious that Peninsula would be different from Train to Busan, not only visually with the night time setting, but also it’s casting of two young girls making up the main cast. Lee Ree, who plays Joon I, a quick-thinking teenager with driving skills that would make Han proud, and Lee Ye-Won as Yu Jin, Joon I’s little sister whose fondness for model rally cars comes in handy for distracting the zombies when it’s time to make a quick getaway.
Unlike Train To Busan, the main characters in Peninsula aren’t just fighting zombies, they have to battle against other people who want to do them harm. In this new world for a gang of former soldiers, other humans are used as entertainment. They’re hunted down, starved, and forced to fight and evade zombies in a giant cage. Lead by Sgt. Hwang (Kim Min Jae) these gangsters are cruel and typical. There’s nothing compelling about them as villains, which was surprising. I was hoping there would be another Yun Suk (Kin Ui Seong) the CEO in TTB, who was a compelling character as his fear of death lead to him making horrible decisions. Though we hated him, we understood why he was afraid. We understood why the passengers he influenced turned against Seok Woo, Sang Hwa, and the others, as they were an interesting study in herd mentality.
But Sgt. Hwang is nothing but a brutish bully who only cares about tormenting those more vulnerable than him. There is one member in the gang who had the potential to be interesting, Captain Seo (Koo Kyo Hwan) who clearly didn’t trust Hwang, and vice versa. I think there was an opportunity to explore why the hierarchy of military rank is still observed in a community of men who despite easily disregarding the sanctity of life, still adhere to certain codes of conduct.
As the third act gets underway, Peninsula’s plot takes a sudden lurch forward with a chase sequence that was exciting and intense, but there’s one major flaw about it. It’s all CGI. Oh how I wish these scenes were achieved through practical effects, they would’ve been amazing. Now I’m not saying that CGI shouldn’t have been used, I just wish it was less obvious. As an action film Peninsula is good, Gang is great in his fight scenes, but it’s unfortunate that what could’ve been the saving grace of the film, turns out to be a letdown.
I like Peninsula. I wanted to love it, and I did at first. But the more I thought about it and got over the excitement of my long four-year wait finally being over, the more the shine wore off. There is a great film with great characters in there…somewhere. One that examines how refugees are treated by their host countries, and how quickly world leaders and countries turn their backs on those they said were allies. There was a chance to address how governments are caught unawares in a national crisis, leaving civilians with no leadership to rely on (sounds familiar doesn’t it) but they’re lost to basic dialogue and predictable plot points. One other thing that was a flaw in the film were the non-Asian actors. This may sound like I’m being biased, but I’m truly not. The difference in the acting abilities and screen presence between them and the Asian cast (Korean and Chinese) was extremely different, and took me out of the film every time they appeared. To me, their casting was unnecessary, and something I see often in Korean dramas. Those scenes would’ve been perfectly fine with experienced Asian actors playing the parts.
Did I have my emotional moment where it seemed like all was lost, but regained? Yes, I did. Were the main characters people I wanted to know more about? Yes, they were. Lee Re, Lee Ye Weon, and Lee Jung Hyun who plays the girls’ mother Min Jeong, and Gang Don Won were great at what they were given to work with, but I wish there had been more to their characters. Even though I’m disappointed in Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula, I don’t think all is completely lost. I think Yeon, had the right idea with this sequel, and the idea of him directing an action film with car racing as the focal point is intriguing to me. If they were to announce him directing a Fast & Furious 11, I’d want to see it. In the end, I got what I didn’t know I wanted, but not enough of what I was hoping for.
Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is in select theaters now.
Even though I’m disappointed in Penninsula, I don’t think all is completely lost. I think director Yeon Sang Ho had the right idea with this sequel, and the idea of him directing an action film with car racing as the focal point is intriguing to me.