Four years have passed since a reanimated deer put into motion a suspenseful zombie-filled ride on a train to Busan, and it’s official that the ruination of the Korean Peninsula is pretty much completed. But since this incident takes place in the Train to Busan universe, the more dire things become, the more entertainment we derive. That’s another way of stating that Peninsula is a badass ride among the running and piling dead — but not without flaws.
One more time, with additional force – this film is a follow-up with a “presents” tag. Remember how Fast & Furious used it in 2019 to expand its established world of lawless speeders and petrolhead families with superhero-adjacents in Hobbs & Shaw? It’s like that here, and for Peninsula’s case, it is the complete distancing from locomotive-based, limited-space horror action that has divided lovers of Train to Busan. If you’re in the “oh, no…” camp, perhaps Peninsula’s mileage will end once the “Ship to Japan” prologue is over; after all the drama, brawling and other things that put soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-wan) and brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) in the same shoes as Gong Yoo’s character, the film will embrace its actual spirit. The stranger, but realer, spirit.
But it will be hard to find the brake to pull, because Peninsula runs like a turbocharged supercar. McLaren with mods, to be specific. Before we can get accustomed to Jung-seok and Chul-min’s battered lives as expats in Hong Kong, we’re already back to Korea, the result of agreeing to retrieve $20 million in cash sitting in a truck for a local English-speaking gangster (Geoffrey Giuliano). And before the heist component can really leave an imprint, Peninsula mutates into what can only be described as “when Mad Max and Doomsday lives a life forever on fifth gear.” Since director Yeon Sang-ho is being way more playful this time around, make sure your heart has the right BPM to keep up with the rescues, the banters, the escapes, and the chaos. Think that nothing else can top the zombie arena sequence? Wait until the third act where Peninsula hosts a wild car-then-foot chase sequence; you will believe that a hefty Kia Mohave can drift, and that when it comes to crafting action, Yeon can match up with Kim Jee-woon or Na Hong-jin (just with more assistance from Wanted-esque vehicular CGI).
The tradeoff for all this hyper-entertainment, however, is that Peninsula has next to none of the humanity and social commentary that is part of Train to Busan’s charm. Our lead Jung-seok is seeking redemption, one that has him cross paths with Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and her family, but the script makes it more of a bullet point, as opposed to a journey. The new folks are more definable through what they do, more than what they are as an individual, like how Joon-i (Re Lee) can control an RC car like no other — when she is Min-jung’s blood — or that Sgt. Hwang (Kim Min-jae) likes to flaunt his bloodlust — when he is the main player of a potential coup at camp.
Still, the biggest missed opportunity has to be the pre-heist moments, or where Yeon and writer Park Joo-suk do not sink their teeth into the (absolutely real) issue of social stigma. Why our leads are so quickly to accept the dangerous heist, other than the script’s doing, is because they are magnets for Hongkongers’ hate. Because they are people from the disease’s epicenter. There is only one sequence showing Jung-seok and Chul-min’s particular plight. Then again, maybe just one is enough, especially if you have been reading about scores of Asians becoming targets during COVID-19, if you are Asian, or if you yourself were one of said targets (my turn was in February).
Not that Peninsula cares, really. So focused is the film on making the next event utterly and defiantly more off-the-charts than the last, that the only time the film’s problems get to roam the mind is when it’s over. But, that may have been the whole design all along!
Directed by: Yeon Sang-ho
Written by: Park Joo-suk, Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Gang Dong-won, Kim Do-yoon, Lee Jung-hyun, Lee Ye-won, Lee Re, Kwon Hae-hyo
[Writer’s note: Since Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is a theatre-only release for now, please make sure your chosen venue is clear and serious about its COVID-19 prevention measures before going. If not, stay home. Be safe! Care for others!]