'Peninsula' Review: The Apocalyptic 'Train To Busan' Follow-Up Goes Off The Rails

From the offset, Peninsula director Yeon Sang-ho insisted that the follow-up to his 2016 zombie sensation Train to Busan was not a sequel. After all, how could you replicate the claustrophobic thriller that was Train to Busan — a miracle concoction of emotionally-driven, socially conscious storytelling with nail-biting action and amazingly acrobatic zombies — without feeling like a tired rehash?

So Yeon decided to go to the other extreme: full-blown apocalyptic action. The result is a loud, over-the-top action flick completely removed from the emotional core that made Train to Busan an unexpected success. But for all its cartoony gore and gaudy imagery, Peninsula does at least fulfill its goal of being Mad Max: Fury Road with zombies.

The first thing you notice with Peninsula is how international it is. It's as if Yeon took notice of the global success of Train to Busan and incorporated it into his follow-up film, which picks up four years after the zombie outbreak that lays waste to the Korean peninsula. The international elements, which appear in the expositional device of an American scientist explaining South Korea's lockdown on a cheery late-night talk show, as well as smatterings of English spoken by various characters, are incorporated somewhat clumsily into the film, but gel with the film's bigger scale and bigger ambitions.

Compared to the taut one-location horror of Train to BusanPeninsula is significantly more sprawling in its narrative, though not necessarily as graceful with its characters. Our protagonist in this film is Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), a former Marine captain struggling with the guilt of not having saved his sister and nephew after an outbreak aboard their ship to Hong Kong. Working for a gangster in Hong Kong, Jung-seok and his spineless brother-in-law are given the mission of returning to the Korean peninsula, which in the four years since has been put in indefinite quarantine to prevent the virus from spreading outside its borders, to retrieve a truck full of millions of dollars. They return to Korea, now rendered a wasteland with no apparent survivors except for the hordes of zombies that operate during the day, their limited vision making them virtually blind at night. But when Jung-seok and his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) find the truck, they are immediately attacked by a group of vicious scavengers for the rogue militia Unit 631, which ruled the survivors with an iron fist in their heavily guarded compound. Chul-min is captured by Unit 631, but Jung-seok manages to escape with the help of two young sisters (Lee Re and Lee Ye-won) who, with their mother (Lee Jung-hyun) and grandfather (Kwon Hae-hyo), had escaped from Unit 631.

Gang is appropriately brooding and heroic as the guilt-ridden Jung-seok, but has a decidedly less compelling arc than Gong Yoo's lead in Train to Busan. Similarly, the rest of the main cast are somewhat archetypal to the zombie movie — the family unit who saves Jung-seok are battle-worn from surviving so long in the zombie wasteland, but have maintained their heart and dignity unlike Unit 631, which is ruled by psychotic despots and slightly gay-coded sociopaths. Lee Jung-hyun's Min-jung is clearly meant to be the breakout character here, the badass mother who will stop at nothing to save her children, and who had a chance encounter with Jung-seok back when he was escorting his family on a boat to flee Korea. But the only real standout is Lee Re's Joon, the pint-sized stoic older sister who can drive a car like a character out of Fast and Furious, and who gets the coolest Terminator-esque line, "If you want to live, get in the car."

The villains of the piece are pretty typical — the boisterous, violent sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae) who delights in torturing the "wild dogs," human survivors they find out in the wasteland, with sadistic gladiator games using hordes of zombies, bound together like some kind of horrifying zombie rat king. And there's the conniving, slimy boss Captain Seo (Koo Kyo-hwan), who discovers the truck of money, and makes the deal to flee Korea with the Hong Kong gangsters waiting for their call.

But one of the things that Yeon proves he still excels at is nail-biting action. Yeon effectively ramps up the tension with his near-silent sequence where Jung-seok discovers the truck, punching through the tension with a lone car horn that invites all hell to break loose. From then on, it's non-stop action, with Yeon stuffing in several Fast and Furious-level car chases through the cramped alleys of Seoul, and piling on the apocalyptic imagery, with a few winking quirks that sets it apart from some of the bleaker films of the genre.

Peninsula is exactly what it says on the tin: a Mad Max-inspired apocalyptic action flick filled with outsized characters and garish imagery (the light-up Uncle Sam outfit that one character wears is hilarious). It's nowhere near the level of the operatic depth of Fury Road (though few are), and it somewhat misses the forest for the trees in its interpretation of George Miller's Oscar-nominated action film — drawing from much of the over-the-top imagery but missing the heart of the story of a new world rising from the ashes. Instead, Peninsula goes for the easy route with its emotional catharsis, giving us an overwrought reunion scene that rivals the melodramatic outbursts of K-dramas.

But who are we to pretend that zombie movies need to be held to some kind of arthouse horror standard? The lumbering, brainless masses are firmly ensconced in the B-movie genre, despite the fascinating sociopolitical roots and context in which they rose (first as a fear of Haitian voodoo practices and the unknown minority communities, then as a stand-in for fears of nuclear apocalypse, and later, biological warfare). Train to Busan may have injected some life into the genre once again with its surprisingly heartfelt narrative, but Peninsula brings it back to those B-movie trappings. It's not particularly clever or groundbreaking. But you know what? It's pretty damn fun.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10