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Is it fitting or perverse that the world’s first post-pandemic theatrical blockbuster should be a movie about a zombie apocalypse spawned by a mysterious virus?
Korean filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho’s action tentpole Peninsula, a loose sequel to his 2016 zombie hit Train to Busan, has earned $27.7 million in South Korea since its release on July 15 and $22.3 million from other international territories. This $50 million worldwide haul makes it the top-earning new release since the coronavirus began shuttering cinemas around the globe earlier this year.
Train to Busan, acclaimed for its skillful action set pieces and fresh spin on the zombie genre, became an international breakthrough in 2016, bringing in $140 million worldwide. Peninsula is unlikely to hit those heights, but the film has had to contend with both virus-wary audiences and mandatory reductions in maximum cinema attendance in every market where it has opened. Release dates in several major territories still remain though. The film will debut on 135 screens in select U.S. cities on Friday, followed by staggered dates across sections of Europe and Japan in the coming weeks.
Whereas Train to Busan told a contained story about a father and daughter trying to survive the zombie apocalypse abroad a bullet train, Peninsula picks up in the same world as its predecessor but follows all-new characters — a solitary hero on the run and a family struggling to survive amid the wreckage of post-apocalypse.
Yeon began his career as a director of socially conscious animated features (The King of Pigs from 2011 and The Fake from 2013) before making his live-action debut — and becoming a household name in his country — with Train to Busan. The social critique and visual chops of his well-regarded animation work remain on full display in Peninsula though — from car chases that feel like a blend of Mad Max and a contemporary video game to a humanist message that reads as if it somehow anticipated the peculiar pathos of the pandemic.
The Hollywood Reporter connected with Yeon ahead of Peninsula‘s U.S. release to discuss how the movie’s meaning has changed in light of the COVID-19, the 1990s Hollywood action flicks that continue to inspire him and how he’s approaching Hellbound, the supernatural horror series he’s next directing for Netflix.
How did you decide that it was the right time to release this movie — amid all of the challenges cinemas are facing during the global health crisis?
Peninsula is a fun action movie, so we originally wanted to release it in July. And as you know, movie marketing has to begin months in advance of the release date. As the pandemic spread throughout the spring, so many movies were getting delayed and we honestly had no idea what the situation would be like by the time of our July release date. But as we got closer, taking into consideration the current level of risk in Korea and other markets in Asia, we felt that it was doable — that it would be okay for us to just push forth with our original plans. I felt that doing so would be helpful to the industry and meaningful to the audience. By then it seemed that it could be done safely in many places. There was a sense of agreement among all of us that this was the right thing to do.
It’s certainly an interesting time to release a movie about a virus that turns people into zombies and leaves the world in ruin. Do you think the appeal of Peninsula has changed in some way for the audience given what’s happening around them in the real world?
Regardless of the commercial success of the movie, I feel that we were lucky to have been able to release it at a meaningful moment. Obviously, it was never part of my intention — I developed the film long before COVID-19 — but due to how events have unfolded, I think the movie’s topic and the overall story has become quite relatable. If you look for the message that the film is delivering, it’s about how we as human beings can invent hope in times of isolation and desperation. The central theme I wanted to convey was that we have to move towards hope, no matter the circumstances. This is probably something a lot of people can relate to.
Has the film’s meaning changed for you personally given everything that has unfolded since you conceived of it?
In Korea, long before the coronavirus outbreak, we have been coping with what we call the fine dust problem. (A meteorological phenomenon that affects much of South Korea, the “Asian dust problem” is caused by fine sands picked up by heavy winds in Mongolia and Kazakhstan, which are then carried over eastern China and the Korean peninsula. As China has industrialized, the dust has become a more serious health problem because the particulate matter often contains dangerous pollutants). My daughter is six years old and she’s been wearing a mast to daycare and kindergarten for most of her life. But I wouldn’t say she feels that it’s too uncomfortable, because that’s the way it has always been for her. It’s more jarring and uncomfortable for adults like us who know of the world before these things happened. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the world pre-COVID-19, or pre climate change, or pre- any of the other problems that we feel have made the world a worse place. Because we have so much heartache for the world before the pandemic, it’s often hard for us not to just dwell in that feeling. For me this relates to a central theme of Peninsula: Rather than giving up hope and obsessing over the way things were, we should remember the things that are most important to us and find a new way to make our way through life.
Back in 2016 when Train to Busan came out, you said that if the film were to get a sequel, you would probably prefer that another filmmaker direct it. What convinced you to come back to this world?
Well, as we began developing Peninsula, a lot of the cinematic concepts we were moving towards were things that had never been attempted in the Korean film industry. For example, the fact that the whole story is set in a post-apocalyptic world and the high-intensity, large-scale car chase scenes. I knew this was going to be quite a demanding piece of work, requiring some bold decisions on the director’s part in terms of the overall production pipeline. With the limited budget we had, as a producer, I felt the best option was for me to do it. And personally, as a filmmaker, I was excited to experience the new creative pipeline that would be required.
Yeah, the new film has a much more heightened visual style than Train to Busan, which felt pretty grounded in reality, despite being a zombie movie. Peninsula is much more stylized — especially the car chase scenes — to the extent that the film almost feels like a fusion of your work as both an animator and director of big-budget action.
Yes, in terms of the car chase scenes and some of the post-apocalyptic backgrounds, I understood from the get-go that it was going to be impossible for us to do reality-based visuals and that there would be serious budget issues if we were to combine lots of CG and live-action shots. So from the beginning, I felt that we were going to have to take an almost animation-like full-CG approach for this film.
Obviously, there were some concerns about this going into it; but as you mentioned, because of my career as an animator, I wasn’t personally too worried. I knew I’d be able to cover a lot with animated effects, and I was expecting to take a bolder approach, utilizing my abilities and background as an animator.
At moments in the film, I sensed some fun echoes of 1990s Hollywood action films. Was that deliberate?
Yes, you were not just imagining that! As a kid, I grew up on Hollywood movies for the 90s, films like Robocop and Terminator 2. These were movies that took huge creative and commercial risks with high-concept stories and effects, but they also totally delivered the strong emotions and messages that they wanted to convey. That’s what I wanted to do in both Train to Busan and Peninsula.
Train to Busan had such a tight concept — basically, survive the zombie apocalypse aboard a train from Seoul to Busan. Did that simplicity make it difficult to come up with a follow-up that would deliver what fans loved about the first film while also offering something fresh?
Yeah, it is very difficult to create a sequel to something that is so high-concept. So, rather than create a direct sequel, I thought it would be more interesting to create a separate story that is grounded in the same universe. A lot of zombie films — such as Train to Busan — are about the moment outbreak. I thought it would be interesting this time to have the star of the movie be the world that is left behind after the zombies leave everything in ruins. I wanted to explore how ordinary people cope with that kind of world and live out their lives.
Last year was a huge moment for the Korean film industry, thanks to the historic global success and Oscars honors for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. Do you think that success has altered the Korean film landscape in a lasting way?
It must have had some impact on Korean cinema, but so far it is hard to say how it will unfold. You could say that Parasite is a win for the Korean film industry as a whole, but I think it mostly comes down to director Bong’s personal achievement. The success of Parasite may lead to greater overall interest in Korean films, which should be a benefit to all of us. What comes next, however — what we do with that interest — is up to each and every Korean filmmaker. Now it’s up to us to create our own successes and achievements.
You’re a uniquely versatile visual storyteller, having worked in both indie animation and big-budget theatrical filmmaking — and now, recently, some comic books and TV series for streaming platforms. What form are you most drawn to currently?
I would have to say that they all appeal to me in different ways. Recently, I was very lucky to have had worked with a close friend of mine, a very talented comic book creator named Choi Gyu-seok. He’s someone I really look up to in terms of his talent — I like to say that he is comparable to [the legendary Japanese manga artist and director] Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of Akira. We worked together to create a series of comic books which were a reboot of a 10-minute animated short I made way back in the day called Hellbound. Through this process, I completely fell in love with comic books again. If I were able to work in just one medium, if I had to choose one job at my old age, I would say it would be creating comic books.
Hellbound is the property that you are also adapting into a live-action series for Netflix, right? You’re working with Choi on that but will be directing the whole series yourself, right? Can you tell us a bit more about it?
It’s in pre-production now and we will begin shooting fairly soon. We think we should be able to release it sometime next year. It has a fairly big-budget because the story requires one and there are a lot of different creatures in it. In terms of what to expect, I don’t want to say anything too specific, but it poses a lot of difficult questions that require deep thought. In terms of the visual image and the central themes, it’s actually a lot darker than what I have done previously so that maybe something that the fans would be happy to anticipate.
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