Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula
Zombie Nation: Sang-ho Widens the Net, Lessens the Scope in Sprawling Sequel
There is no room in the conceit ‘less is more,’ it seems, in the zombie film subgenre, and Yeon Sang-ho’s Peninsula, a sequel to his runaway 2016 hit Train to Busan (a universe which also includes his 2016 animated film Seoul Station) is an assemblage of reanimated influences.
Much like the previous film (read review), a two-hour running time tends to trample the tension and dread into a shallow grave of waning attention spans. But whereas the claustrophobic parameters of characters struggling to avoid a zombie bite on a hurtling train at least instilled a familiar mood the first time around, Sang-ho’s unsurprising sequel is tonally all over the place, with more room to play but less to say.
As all of South Korea finds itself ravaged by a deadly zombie virus, Marine Captain Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) is rushing to drive his sister, her daughter and her husband Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) to a ship taking survivors out of the country. But when the virus rampages those on board, his sister and niece die. Four years later, both he and Chul-min are refugees in Hong Kong, approached to undergo a daring mission which would see them try to extract twenty-million US dollars stuck within a food truck in Incheon. Reluctantly, they agree, considering the zombies are blind at night and only attracted by noise. Joined by two other recruits for the mission, their plan goes awry after they obtain the money, thwarted by Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae), who is basically commanding the human population left behind, along with Captain Seo (Koo Gyo-hwan). Chul-min is captured by Hwang’s men and forced into gladiatorial face-offs with zombies for the entertainment of survivors, while Jung-seok is saved by Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), a woman he cruelly drove past in the opening sequence on his drive to the doomed ship. Min-jung, along with her two daughters and father (Hong Sang-soo alum Kwon Hae-hyo), are determined to use the satellite phones and plot an escape from the peninsula, but it also happens to be the same plan secretly being devised by Captain Seo, who now has the money.
Zombie pandemic films are, of course, nothing new, but arriving during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and hailing from a country which at least satisfactorily quelled it initially, Peninsula seems more archaic than prescient.
Familiar character narratives defined either by how they are torn apart from their familial unit or allowed to bond emotionally in the midst of trauma are again the backbone of Sang-ho’s protagonists, once we settle into, more or less, the dual realms of Jung-seok and Min Jung.
Performance wise, none of the characters are really allowed to ‘rise above the occasion,’ at least not to the degree of Gong Yoo or Ma Dong-seok in the former installment. Even at its most impressive, Sang-ho (co-writing with Ryu Yong-jae), a myriad of other films seem to have provided their impulses, from the return to a devastated zone as in Aliens (1986), an exiled territory from Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) or L.A. (1996), and especially the Mad Max universe.
Some egregiously distracting CGI car chase sequences in what is more or less the third act segues into something along the lines of a zombie soap opera, while those zombies, the very things which made Busan and plenty of other classic titles unsettling (at least sporadically), are just a gaggle of underutilized automatons. While not without glimmers of possibility, Peninsula may satisfy some genre cravings, but it suffers from the clichés endlessly exhibited by sequels which divorce themselves from the underlying elements of the predecessor.