Pity Peninsula. It was always going to be difficult to follow up Train to Busan, which in just a few years has cemented its status as a modern horror classic.
Let’s bitch it out…
The reality is that Peninsula is not Train to Busan.
The sequel may hail from the same writer/director, Sang-ho Yeon (with Busan co-writer Joo-suk Park swapped out for Ryu Yong-jae) but where the 2016 film was a tense, contained zombie film, its 2020 sequel is a sprawling, slightly messy action film. The central antagonist has also shifted: in Busan the zombies were a persistent threat and the train’s co-habitants a contributing factor to the group’s survivor, whereas in the post-apocalyptic world of Peninsula the human scavengers left in deserted port city of Incheon are the biggest obstacle to survival.
Sequels are a challenge at the best of times, and the decision to shift the focus from intimate family drama to broad action film rubbed some audiences and critics the wrong way. Anyone who samples the new film through the lens of its predecessor (which is admittedly not hard to do given that Peninsula is being sold under the title Train to Busan Presents…) will inevitably find the new film lacking.
A better comparison would be Neil Marshall’s critically-derided 2008 genre mash-up Doomsday. That film and Peninsula share a similar propensity for ridiculous action sequences and a slight narrative premise infused with bits of broad comedy. They are also both clearly informed by seminal action films like Escape from New York and Mad Max.
Peninsula opens with a brief prologue documenting the zombie outbreak from Train to Busan, the mass exodus from Korea and the desertion/isolation of the country. In his haste to escape the country, protagonist Jung-seok (Dong-won Gang) ignores hitchhiking mother Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) on the road, then loses his sister and nephew to a zombie outbreak aboard a freighter en route to Hong Kong. Four years later, he and his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) are roped into a shady deal to return to Incheon to recover a truck filled with money.
Naturally the operation goes tits up almost immediately when they’re ambushed by Sgt. Hwang (Kim Min-jae) and members of his Unit 361, who scavenge the ruins for human prey to use in a zombie cage match gambling ring. Chul-min is captured, while Jung-seok is rescued by Min-jung’s two daughters, ace teenage driver Joon-i (Lee Ra) and precocious pre-teen Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won). The rest of the film is dedicated to rescuing Chul-min, surviving Unit 361’s attacks and escaping the city.
Absent the astute socio-political commentary and confined action sequences of Train to Busan, director Yeon dramatically opens up the narrative and expands the scope of his action sequences (a better comparison than Busan would be his animated prequel, Seoul Station). In Peninsula the father/daughter relationship that leant Busan its beating heart is replaced by Jung-seok’s quest for absolution from his guilt, which is embodied in both his abandonment of Min-jung and his failure to protect his and Chul-min’s family. Unfortunately the emotional beats don’t land quite as strongly, though Gang makes for a believable action hero with a heart and the moments between mother and daughters are decent, albeit on the formulaic side.
If there’s one reason to recommend Peninsula, it’s the action. There are a number of stand-out set-pieces, including the initial Unit 361 ambush on Jung-seok’s party, the reveal of the zombie gambling ring and the final climactic chase scene. Both the first and last instances lean heavily into car chases, and the latter in particular is incredibly evocative of Max Max: Fury Road as Unit 361 pursues the heroes down a road gauntlet in souped-up vehicles.
The biggest knock against the film is its excessive use of not-very-convincing CGI action in these scenes, which is disappointing given how successful Yeon is at directing them. If the FX can be forgiven, these scenes are incredibly effective at spiking the adrenaline, though audiences will have no difficulty identifying who will live and who will die at the off-set.
The Bottom Line: Peninsula is best considered a stand-alone action zombie film rather than an outright sequel to Train to Busan. Audiences willing to overlook the egregious CGI and familiar narrative will discover a solidly entertaining action film with a number of thrilling sequences.
Peninsula is now available on VOD, DVD and Blu