Korean cinema has certainly seen a rise in relevance over the last ten years, hell even spawning the first ever foreign film to win best picture earlier this very year, and while a lot of films could be credited with helping spark the public interest in these movies the one film many would argue played a huge role is “Train to Busan”. Considered by many, including myself, to be one of the best zombie movies of all time and making several “best horror films of the decade” lists from the 2010s, including my own which you can read here, “Train to Busan” quickly became a modern classic bringing to life an emotionally deep and entertaining zombie flick layered with still-relevant social commentary. So when a sequel, or rather spin-off of the movie was green lit many were hoping to see the franchise continue to blossom. Thus, we have 2020’s “Peninsula” or, if you want to use the full title, “Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula”. Showcasing a return to the zombie-littered South Korean city years after the outbreak and focusing on a new story and new characters, “Peninsula” does a lot of things right in its attempts to further establish the series as one of the best zombie franchises in film, but it also pails in comparison to its more memorable predecessor.
“Peninsula” puts the focus on a new character named Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) a former South Korean military Sergeant who is haunted by his failures during the onset of the zombie outbreak which included the loss of several family members as well as his unwillingness to stop and help a married couple and their young daughter. Four years after these events Jung-seok accepts a mission to re-enter Busan to retrieve a truck of money after being offered a share of the earnings. His mission, as you might expect, goes awry as he and his crew come into conflict with an insane group of ex-military residents of the city called Unit 631. When Jung-seok is rescued from the Unit by the very mother and daughter he once refused to save he finds an opportunity to redeem himself and attempts to escape a Busan where both the living and the dead are out to get him.
“Peninsula” is a very different story than the previous film. Where “Train to Busan” was a survival story about a father trying to get his dauhter to his ex-wife, “Peninsula” is more of a typical action thriller with less emotional depth and more car chases and the generic fractured world aesthetic that almost every post-apocalyptic film likes to include. With that in mind “Peninsula” doesn’t really move the franchise forward in any new directions, at least not as far as the genre is concerned. Yes, this is a very different story than the first film that literally pushes the world of “Train of Busan” to a new extreme, but it leans very heavily on the same tired cliches we’ve seen many apocalyptic movies embrace and even TV shows like “The Walking Dead”. This could very easily be chalked up to an oversaturation of the genre. A lot of the ground has been covered because there are so many zombie movies and thus fewer ideas. However, I would argue that the first movie was proof that you can tackle clichés without feeling cliché. The original movie also embraced many zombie movie formulas, but it still managed to feel fresh and establish its own identity because it devoted itself to its emotional core and offered some unique attributes for its zombies and characters for us to root for or against. “Peninsula” does neither of these to great effects offering us characters too reminiscent of past genre titles and zombies that take a back seat to the forgettable human monsters that remain in Busan.
Still, “Peninsula” is a fun film. The action scenes are engaging, the world is dark and gritty as an apocalyptic reality should be and at times I even found myself comparing it positively to the worlds presented in “The Walking Dead” and “The Last of Us” video games. While the characters and their motivations are cliché they’re still much better acted and developed than many movies of this caliber would even try to do. While the emotional moments are few and far between, when the film does address the hardships of its reality or the sacrifices made to survive, they hit hard and leave a mark. But the movie needed more of this and less focus on the action.
One huge flaw of the film is its heavy dependence on CGI, especially during the action scenes, and the glaring lack of financing or polish that fails to make things believable. Part of the climax is a huge car chase and the entire thing felt stripped right out of a video game. The previous movie did have a lot of CGI built in, but it was overshadowed by the quality of the story and served as one of the few notable flaws of the experience. “Peninsula” doesn’t offer near enough to overcome its shoddy effects instead putting them front and center as a main draw for your entertainment. The result is an experience I did enjoy to an extent, but not for the reasons I wanted to. The action was fun but campy and unbelievable. The emotional depth was effective when it mattered but was overshadowed by the film’s violence. “Peninsula” tried something new and completely changed its identity to stand apart from its predecessor forgetting that the reason people wanted to come back to this series was because of all the little touches that made “Train to Busan” so memorable.
“Peninsula” isn’t the sequel “Train to Busan” or its fans deserved, but in the grand scheme of things it’s still a fun zombie flick that offers a lot more than even the most average genre film tends to even attempt. It still has touches of emotional storytelling and showcases an interesting world mixing in plenty of action for those looking for a mindless post-apocalyptic horror piece to pass the time. But the first film had so much to offer: a relatable father-child narrative, creatively unique zombies, characters we actually cared about, truly heartbreaking losses, and even some not-so-subtle commentary on the media that feels even more relevant during the current pandemic. A sequel could have and should have further developed all of these things, but instead took a route that feels more pandering than insightful or memorable. When you get down to it, “Peninsula” might help further the franchise’s grip in the modern zombie genre but lacks the same bite that made “Train to Busan” a deserving modern classic.