Eye-opening South Korean zombie horror film Train to Busan had a few key things going for it when it reinvigorated the living dead once again in 2016, giving yet another stay of execution to horror’s most tenacious subgenre. It featured some properly intimidating, slavering ghouls, which certainly didn’t hurt, and it corralled them into a tightly bound setting that offered unique challenges to the humans trapped on board a train quickly filling with zombies. But on a deeper level, Train to Busan featured an array of nuanced characters from several strata of Korean society, and it was instantly compelling to see this well-realized group of conflicting personalities struggle and thrash against a seemingly insurmountable, zombie-shaped obstacle. It’s the rare zombie feature confident enough in the strength of its serious-minded narrative that it didn’t have to rely entirely on action, or the salve of comedy, to become a worldwide hit.
Sequel Peninsula, or more obliquely Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula, unfortunately can’t say the same. Where the first film was a character-driven horror drama that deftly threaded tension and thrills into its narrative at appropriate points, Peninsula is an action-horror sequel by way of World War Z or Fast & Furious, trading three-dimensional characters for more chaotic, wide-scale action that suffers from an overreliance on poorly realized CGI. It’s the sequel that the most cynical horror geeks in the audience would have been expecting: bigger and shiner, but lacking the grounded aesthetic that worked so well the first time around. Sadly, it feels like a cash grab.
Which, by the way, is the crux of the plot in Peninsula—a literal cash grab. As in, we’re following a group of South Korean refugees living in Hong Kong as they stealthily return to the quarantined Korean peninsula under orders from a crime boss, in search of a truck filled with millions in stolen American currency. Think Treasure of the Sierra Madre, except deep in the ruins of zombie-choked Incheon. It’s a plan that immediately invites a certain degree of incredulity—why does the leader of a criminal syndicate send unreliable refugees to recover $20 million rather than his own reliable foot soldiers? Does he really not expect these random people to take the money for themselves, when they have every reason to do so? But that confusion is par for the course when it comes to Peninsula.
There are two primary characters of note: former Marine Captain Jung-seo (Gang Dong-won) and his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), both of whom we meet in transit on a refugee ship bound for Hong Kong, fleeing the Korean peninsula at the start of the outbreak depicted in Train to Busan. Unfortunately for both, an outbreak aboard the ship results in the grisly deaths of Chul-min’s wife and child, immediately establishing the guilt-ridden status of both Jung-seo and Chul-min. The depiction of these deaths, however, also ratchets up the emotional intensity of the film to artificial levels right off the bat—it’s an immediate injection of maudlin sentiment that feels in no way earned, presented with an air of epic tragedy you’d expect to see reserved for the end of a two-hour film rather than the first few minutes. It’s a shortcut to pathos that is indicative of a film that cuts a lot of corners when it comes to storytelling, in service of getting us to sequences of gunplay and car chases.
On the peninsula itself, our intrepid money recovery team quickly locates their quarry, but runs afoul of a large group of militarized survivors, led by the psychopathic Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-Jae) and cowardly Captain Seo (Koo Kyo-Hwan), who also pose an immediate risk to the family of beautiful mother Min-jung (Lee Jung-Hyun) and her precocious daughters Joon (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won). It’s a staple archetype of power-mad, post-apocalypse military misogyny we’ve seen in the zombie genre a hundred times before, from Joseph Pilato’s tyrannical Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead to Christopher Eccleston in 28 Days Later, but this time around there’s not even a basic attempt being made at a moral of man’s inhumanity to man—why bother, when you can start throwing prisoners into zombie pits to fight it out in the style of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?
This lowered scope of ambition could perhaps be forgiven if the heavier focus on action produced some memorable scenes of zombie carnage, but Peninsula stumbles here far too often, as well. There’s really only one sequence that captures the frenetic energy seen in almost all the train-based combat of the original—the aforementioned Thunderdome-style rumble—but it comes and goes in a blur, and without the visceral payoff one might expect. That’s a shame, when the alternative is endless shoot-outs between human combatants that feel like they could have been excised from just about any straight-to-VOD action movie. Director Yeon Sang-ho, who staged genuinely tense sequences in the first film, just seems suddenly out of his element here when expected to produce a grander action spectacle.
Nowhere does this become more apparent than in Peninsula’s many scenes of vehicular action and car chases, which crib their visual identity shamelessly from the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road while inserting distractingly bad CGI into almost every shot. The waxy-looking SUVs, driven by wise-cracking children making jokes that tonally clash with the film’s attempted themes of guilt and redemption, project a sense of Hollywood-like design by committee onto these sequences, which emerge as a jumbled mess. It’s less George Miller, more low-budget Michael Bay parody, an impression only amplified by hiding every chase in the muddy darkness of night in an effort to cover up the rough edges of the CGI. Compare that with the crisp-looking Train to Busan, which largely relies on makeup effects that can stand up to the harsh light of day, and you get a sense of how Peninsula over-extended itself in trying to up the ante. It collapses under the weight of its imperative to be bigger and better than the original.
In the build-up to Peninsula’s now-delayed U.S. release (currently scheduled for Aug. 21, 2020), there was grumbling among some fans in the online commentariat who were angry the film “wasn’t a direct sequel” to Train to Busan. It seems a rather unreasonable request, especially considering that almost all the characters of the first film are dead by the end of it, but the actual, less-articulated concern of those grumblings was a fear that Peninsula would lose whatever factors it was that made Train to Busan rise above the rabble of interchangeable zombie features. Sadly, that is exactly what has occurred, not because the film lacks connective tissue to the story or world established in Train to Busan, but because it’s so concerned with projecting the appearance of an action blockbuster—without the tools or talent to pull that off—that it discards the sort of nuanced characters that made the first film stand out. It is effectively the worst of both worlds, with neither action nor characters that live up to the promise of being “presented” by the likes of Train to Busan. Better that it just be called Peninsula, and spared the burden of a comparison that it simply can’t win.
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Writers: Yeon Sang-ho, Park Joo-Suk
Starring: Gang Dong-won, Kim Do-yoon, Lee Jung-hyun, Lee Re
Release date: Aug. 21, 2020
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.