Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (2020)
★★ / ★★★★
There is an abundance of claims that “Peninsula” is so different than “Train to Busan” that it fails to come across as a natural extension of what made the predecessor memorable. That is not my issue with the sequel. On the contrary, I think it is too similar. There is not one thematic element—whether the material is making a statement about what it means to be a parent or parent-like figure, dealing with guilt after having faced an impossible situation, individualism versus collectivism, or that the living is in fact worse than the twitching dead—that stands strong against the original which could give the follow-up a chance to become, at the very least, equally interesting.
As a result, Yeon Sang-ho’s feature is a mere exercise in redundancy. And it doesn’t stop in terms of context either. The visuals, too, are uninspired. Certainly they can be rather extreme like how members of a rogue militia not only force their starving and outnumbered captives to survive against the rabid dead in a caged arena, they place bets on who would live each round; how vehicles crash and pierce through hordes of zombies as a bowling ball would to a bunch of bowling pins; or how shootouts unfold almost in a cartoonish fashion whether the target is still a person or a living dead. These ostentatious sequences are busy and clearly made to inspire awe, but they possess a commonality. They are often loud; the approach is so consistently one-note to the point where the visuals’ extreme nature becomes diluted well before the final act. Yes, just like “Busan,” the final minutes is drenched in sentimentality.
But the waterworks is less earned here. The central plot revolves around four South Koreans who escaped to Hong Kong but are hated there out of fear that they may carry the zombie virus. (The screenplay by Park Joo-Suk and Yeon does not strive to be subtle, as you may have already guessed.) They are hired to go back to their country of origin to locate a truck that contains twenty million dollars. They are promised that should they make it back safely with the money bags, each person would be awarded two-and-a-half million—more than enough to start a new life. One of the four is a former Marine, Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), who left his sister to perish with her son in a room infested with recently turned zombies. Predictably, the final act must fuse movie spectacle and the man’s grief.
It is not effective because we are not given a chance to learn about the more intimate details of the Jung-seok character. He is wracked with guilt, yes, but what else? There is nothing else, you see, and that is precisely the problem. We follow a cardboard cutout traipse around the peninsula; he shoots guns good, he is good at feeling bad, he gets into the good graces of another survivor he wronged in the past. He is dead dull and compound that with a screenplay that is begging for an electric shock, it becomes numbing.
In the middle of it, I wondered if there was another character whose life story is more worthy in terms of perspective or angle that best tells this supposedly new tale. I became nearly convinced that it might have been better to follow Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), mother of two who had crossed paths with Jung-seok four years prior, when the virus was just beginning to spread all over the country. I say “nearly” because we aren’t provided rich details about the character either, but I found the performer to be more expressive. At least when I looked into her eyes, I felt specific emotions and her thoughts across her face made me want to ask questions.
I enjoyed some of the night sequences in “Peninsula,” especially in how sprinting zombies burst out of the dark to take a bite of their warm prey who stupidly made a loud noise heard from a mile away. It is usually pitch black mere yards from the nearest light source that it dares viewers to imagine what lies beyond. It is moments like this that the film needs more of. Clearly it is capable of genuine entertainment. Instead, the action is amplified to the point where, for instance, it feels like we are watching Justin Lin’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” given all the preposterous, physics-defying vehicular acrobatics. At least in that film, it is all within context. Here, it is fish out of water. It is an excellent example of a sequel trying to outdo the original but not when it comes to elements that actually matter.