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Who knew a zombie film could be so prescient? When Train to Busan surprised everyone in 2016 with its simultaneously fresh and familiar spin on the zombie apocalypse, it did so because co-writer and director Yeon Sang-ho splashed blood and guts all over characters we grew invested in, whose tragedies came like a punch to the gut and whose redemption felt earned. It helped that the $100 million grossing Train had a laser focus and could rely on the tension inherent in a confined space; it was a haunted house on rails.
A sequel was inevitable, and despite some truly white-knuckle car chases and creative lighting, Peninsula, like many films that jump on the surprise hit bandwagon, proves lightning in a bottle happens only once. Yeon, who broke out for his caustic animations — The King of Pigs, about the legacy of class and violence, and the first part of the zombie “trilogy,” the much darker disenfranchisement allegory Seoul Station — has crafted what could be argued is his first truly mainstream film, and it makes you pine for his edgier, angrier work.
RELEASE DATE Aug 07, 2020
With South Korea weathering its pandemic storm better the most, Peninsula scored a healthy, social distancing-influenced $13 million opening in July. It should continue to gain steam as it rolls out in other territories (it’s collected $32 million so far) where niche audiences and genre devotees might be tempted to slink out to see how Yeon followed up his game-changing horror thriller. Hong Kong audiences will likely be charmed by the more halcyon images of the city unmarred by scorch marks and infection, and by characters who actually speak Cantonese.
Peninsula picks up four years after the events of Train, with our new hero, soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won, Kim Ji-woon’s Illang: The Wolf Brigade), coldly abandoning a family of survivors on a deserted, woodsy road (in a move that never truly comes back to bite him) as he races to the port with his sister, her husband and their son. We get the requisite TV news/talk show exposition to fill us in on what happened in the interim: The South Korean government lost control of the virus, the Hong Kong-bound ship Jung-seok was on turned out to have infected passengers on board, Jung-seok’s sister and nephew die, and just like that Korea is effectively quarantined from the rest of the world. The refugees are pariahs wherever they go.
Up to this point, there’s nothing particularly innovative or compelling about Peninsula, though the fraught race to freedom and the simmering feeling that something is about to take a catastrophic turn is nicely, if predictably, handled. Yeon is good in tight spaces, and if Peninsula had been stranded aboard a super-ferry that might have worked just fine. Nonetheless, like the earlier film it sets up its premise (or seems to) and so far, so expositional.
The action heads back to zombie-torn Korea when Jung-seok, now an unwelcome virus refugee in Hong Kong, agrees to help his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon, The Wailing) and a couple of other castoffs sneak back into the country and steal a truck loaded up with U.S. greenbacks, which they’ll split with a gang of unscrupulous Hong Kong gangsters.
Once there, Jung-seok and Chul-min are separated by movie-mandated stupidity: The former is saved from the hordes by Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun, Battleship Island) and her undead-hardened children, the latter falls in with Unit 631, a lawless community led with military harshness by Hwang (Kim Min-jae) and, marginally, Seo (Koo Gyo-hwan), who might be mad. Unit 631 also keeps itself amused with gladiatorial combat. You can guess what substitutes for lions. The end result of this mash-up is a zombie heist/rescue adventure with a detour to Thunderdome — Aunty Entity sadly not included.
Peninsula suffers the same type of sequelitis that suggests a second entry must be more/bigger/louder than its predecessor. Where Train to Busan’s two hours were impeccably paced and every frame meticulously used, Peninsula spins its wheels in between its admittedly impressive key set pieces. The devastated Incheon area is eerie in its calm (until someone leans on a car horn), the derelict shipping containers always feel threatening, and the otherworldly light and long shadows cast by orange flares on the final dash to safety is a gorgeous complement to the chase, making the city seem haunted even as it teems with “life.” The truck heist is well staged, but entirely unnecessary, a symptom of Yeon and co-writer Ryu Jong-jae too often falling back on tropes so deftly sidestepped in the first film.
Apart from the increased use of CGI, the biggest digression from the first film is in the lack of rounded characters that gave the story its emotional heft and actors something to work with. Jung-seok is moody, but an ace shot. Seo becomes a different person when faced with millions of dollars and a chance at escape. Min-jung is self-sacrificing and forgiving, because children. The B and C stories here don’t efficiently serve the A story the way they did the first time around; they feel more like diffuse filler that gives the film an aimless quality it shouldn’t have, with a big emotional finale that feels forced.
Tech specs are as clean and polished as would be expected from a Korean film, though the sound mix seemed to toggle back and forth between ear-splitting and normal too frequently.
Production company: Redpeter Films
US distributor: Well Go USA
Cast: Gang Dong-won, Lee Jung-hyun, Lee Re, Kwon Hae-hyo, Kim Min-jae, Koo Kyo-hwan, Kim Do-yoon, Lee Re, Lee Ye-won
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Screenwriter: Ryu Yong-jae, Yeon Sang-ho
Producer: Lee Dong-ha
Executive producer: Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography: Lee Hyung-deok
Production designer: Lee Mo-kwon
Costume designer: Jo Sang-kyung
Editor: Yang Jin-mo
World sales: Contents Panda
No rating, 116 minutes
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