It’s easy to get cynical about the zombie subgenre of horror as a whole. After its mini resurgence in the early 2000’s, the prospect of more films about everyone’s favorite shambling horrors mostly elicits yawns these days. Heck, The Walking Dead, once the hottest thing on TV, now elicits about as much excitement as an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Yeon Sang-ho was able to not only revive the zombie flick with his 2016 South Korean wonder Train to Busan, he downright made it feel new and vital again. When I finally caught it earlier this year (available on Netflix), I was blown away by how Yeon combined a heady brew of Otomo and Raimi, along with the obvious debt to Romero, to create one of the most electrifying uses of an enclosed environment this side of Snowpiercer, and it’s probably better than that on balance. Frankly, the world really didn’t need a sequel to this film, just like Night of the Living Dead never needed a follow up. But sometimes in these gambles you get Dawn of the Dead!
…and sometimes, you get Peninsula.
The full title is actually Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula. That sort of lurid heading gives away the main focal point of this exercise: to create a new franchise for Yeon to be able to cash in on with his critical breakthrough. And all cynicism aside, there’s a ton of worldbuilding potential to be had in a world after the zombie apocalypse has happened. I’m fairly certain that history has largely proven these types of deeper excursions don’t pay off in most cases, but Yeon certainly has earned the benefit of the doubt. I just wish he hadn’t blown it so quickly. Peninsula is, for lack of a better word, a deeply flawed film, and an increasingly dumb one as its running time ticks away.
Throughout, one gets a sense that the animated-minded Yeon wanted to fully blend that ever-present Akira influence with the later Romero films, specifically Day of the Dead. Its sights are fully adjusted towards the military industrial complex and the people who end up filling the authoritarian void when the government has completely filed a country away as a lost cause, such as what has happened in South Korea as stated in the film’s preamble.
Through an awkwardly shot “late night” segment, we learn that the world’s governments have (implausibly) decided to quarantine South Korea completely and leave it as basically a country full of zombies. But with that of course comes a significant amount of money and valuables left behind for any enterprising individual to scoop up if they dare. And that’s exactly where former soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) finds himself after escaping from the pandemic torn land and establishing residence in Hong Kong after the loss of his sister and nephew in the escape.
Jung-seok is hired, along with his brother in law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), by a ganglord and his cronies to head back into the country and secure a truckload of money that some of his previous subordinates were unable to secure before meeting their fatal ends. If they can do it all under the cover of night, when the zombies are famously blinded, while also being heavily armed, it should be a piece of cake, right? Once there, they of course run afoul of the current gang controlling things in the region, and become separated, with the capable Jung-seok falling in with a teen who is a wiz behind the wheel of a car (Lee Re) and her younger tech-smart sister, while Chul-min is held captive by the gang, led by Captain Seo (Koo Kyo-hwan) and the maniacal Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae), to whom human lives are just sport for entertainment’s sake. How and if they’re able to escape becomes the fulcrum by which Peninsula is centered.
Unlike its predecessor, which only played up its own ridiculousness nature at specific points for maximum impact, with Peninsula, Yeon has built out a sense of heightened reality on par with that of a mid 90’s summer blockbuster. Everyone is good with guns, the bad guys are cartoon characters, and the kids are superhumanly brilliant. None of that is inherently a flaw, to be clear; it is one of the more enticing elements of the movie and allows it sit apart from Train to Busan in terms of style and tone. Yeon is absolutely making a different film here, it’s just a far lesser one.
One aspect that absolutely paralyzes the film is simply that there’s no character to really gravitate to, even from the outset. The intention is that Jeong-seok is the hero you’ll root for as he mows down zombies and earns redemption for some of the past mistakes he’s made. But really he’s just a bore, and no amount of glowering and moodiness can replace actual characterization. The supporting players fare even worse, as each person is basically defined by one trait. Unlike the individual journeys viewers went on with the ensemble in the previous film, there is basically little to no growth or revelations to be found outside of the perfunctory. By the time Peninsula wraps, it attempts to imbue itself with some pathos, but at that point, there’s no reason to care despite the compounded crocodile tears that get shoved into the final frames. All the grace of Train to Busan’s heartbreaking end is replaced with a hammering here.
So the characters do drag the film’s narrative in its undertow once you get past the novelty factor of a return to this environment, which does indeed have its own sheen for a short period of time. But, what of the action? Surely, given the influences at play here, we can at least get some great car chases and street battles? Well, for whatever reason, likely budget related, Yeon opted to replace practical effects with full blown cgi sequences. Scenes that should be kinetic and the centerpiece of the excitement, especially as the film itself winds up to its climax, just looks like a big blob of video game nothing, with fake looking vehicles sojourning over an endlessly repetitive street layout. It’s just so careless and cheap looking, but because these scenes are among the only times anyone is actually doing something within the bulk of the film, it eats up a ton of real estate and again pulls perhaps one of the only promising elements of Yeon’s re-envisioning of the franchise down with it.
There’s so many different directions a Train to Busan sequel could have gone. One imagines a film that focuses on North Korea’s reaction to their neighbor becoming a no man’s land, and the larger political ramifications therein, or a movie centered on how the fairly enigmatic Captain Seo was able to take control of a band of killers (there a whole potential subplot regarding him and another of the leads that is mentioned in passing and never followed up again, surely on the cutting room floor). But even if one focuses just on the movie we have rather than the one we don’t, the most interesting moments that remain are of poor Chul-min, captured as a part of a survival game. Perhaps if Peninsula was about his coming into his own and eventually standing atop his captors, at least that would be a movie that could really be built upon.
As it stands, Peninsula is a rather large cinematic disappointment in a year when the bar for entertainment is painfully low.