Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (South Korea, 2020)

Both writer-director Yeon Sang-ho and his latest film, Peninsula, bear the burden of heavy expectations. But this sequel to his worldwide blockbuster hit, Train to Busan (2016) and the third film in the franchise along with the animated feature, Seoul Station (2016) is not just confident, it really delivers. While it might not necessarily please those who are expecting something close to Train to Busan’s treatment of the zombie genre, Peninsula offers surprises pointing to directions that fans of the first film might not expect.

This sequel opens with a scene following a car in which marine captain Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) and his sister’s family are driving to a military ship set to escape the Korean Peninsula. Later on, a passenger infected by the undead virus began exhibiting violence and eventually infected the whole cabin of passengers, including Jung-seok’s sister and her child. The family is survived by Jung-seok and his brother-in-law, Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon).

Four years after the Busan incident, South Korea is now abandoned and declared inhabitable with trips going in and out heavily monitored by an international coast guard. Jung-seok and Chul-min are now living as immigrants, seeking refuge in Hong Kong. One day they are hired, along with two other Korean refugees, by a Hong Kong gang to go back to Korea to retrieve $20 million that was inside an abandoned truck near the Inchon port.

What Peninsula offers is not far from its predecessor. There’s still the fast-paced zombie action that was seen on the train. But the sequel wittingly shifts its gears from having them as a conflict to being the very premise of the film. Jung-seok and Chul-min return to a now post-apocalyptic Korea. As they retrieve the target truck, they are ambushed by the former Unit 631 soldiers who have now became madly homicidal after losing all hope of outside help. Unit 631 grabs the truck with Chul-min hiding inside, while Jung-seok is rescued by the sisters Joon (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won) after being thrown out of the truck in the ambush.

For the most part, Peninsula’s take on the post-apocalypseis more reminiscent of the quirkiness of the 1980s dystopian sci-fi than the contemporaries that Train to Busan has been compared to. Particularly, those of The Road Warrior (1981), in terms of the characterization of the militarist state of Unit 631, and Japanese cyberpunk which is an obvious influence on Joon and Yu-jin’s attitude. But these tropes are quite fittingly appropriated for the near-future post-apocalypse South Korea. The car-chase scenes in the last third are an obvious tribute to the Mad Max series.

Admittedly, the mix of dystopian road mayhem, heist and zombie apocalypse may be quite disorienting. There’s a lot of things happening that may have been above the bar of the film’s production capability. The biggest letdown is how its CG effects do not seem to work in the mostly night-time setting as well as they did in daylight in Train to Busan. However, these flaws are compensated for by an interesting ensemble of characters which is entertaining for one to follow them through the rest of the film. Peninsula’s strongest point, as in Train to Busan, is the performances of its cast.

In this film, Yeon attempts to expand the global implications of the seemingly isolated narrative of Train to Busan. There are hints of socio-political consciousness: the zombie outbreak happened in a fictional setting days before the supposed reunification of North and South Koreas, and the North closed after the incident. It tries to put into its very consciousness, too, the more contemporary issue of refugees and the global conflicts that have surrounded it. A lot of these details, however, are left as vague details while a lot of holes in its lore are not addressed within the narrative. Another way to look at this is that the gaps are deliberate in order to expand on the lore of the universe in possible future releases. Well, it got me intrigued to say the least.

Peninsula has a lot going on. It’s sense of ambition is larger than that of its predecessor. Although it will be understandable if some fans of the first film or the zombie genre itself do not find its mix of genres appealing, the mixing of genre itself is a great ambition. And this ambition pays off with some real surprised, especially in the film’s latter half. Peninsula opens up the possibility for the film’s universe to be further imagined, and it seems that Yeon is just getting started.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is distributed in the US by Well Go USA Entertainment.

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