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Monday, August 17, 2020

[Review] ‘Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula’ Channels ‘Mad Max’ With High-Octane Action Spectacle

Between surprise hit Train to Busan and its animated prequel Seoul Station, director Yeon Sang-Ho proved the zombie apocalypse remains fertile ground for thrills, social commentary, and emotional depth. The international success of the former ensured that a sequel was inevitable, so the real question became whether that sequel would emulate its predecessor or if Yeon Sang-Ho would continue to explore new terrain within his unique zombie universe. The answer, it turns out, is a little of both.

Peninsula opens with a scene set four years ago, during the initial outbreak that hit Korea. During an emotionally wrought and harrowing sequence, soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-Won) fights to get his family to a rescue ship evacuating to Hong Kong. Because not even the vessel is safe from infection, his ship is among the last allowed to unload its evacuees on another country, sealing the door shut, metaphorically, on the overrun Korean peninsula. Four years later, Jung-seok and brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-Yoon) barely eke out a living working for a crime boss. He offers the pair a chance for wealth and freedom; all they have to do is sneak back into the peninsula and retrieve a hefty sum of money that a previous team failed to recover. Chances for survival are slim thanks to an endless horde of undead and feral survivors.

Trading the claustrophobic space of a speeding train in favor of an apocalyptic city in ruins, co-writers Yeon Sang-Ho and Park Joo-Suk (Train to Busan) attempt to toe the line between intimate, poignant character-driven narrative and high-octane action spectacle. There’s a much bigger budget at this sequel’s disposal, and Yeon Sang-Ho takes full advantage by delivering multiple memorable set pieces, Mad Max: Fury Road inspired action sequences and a heavy emphasis on visual effects.

As the godfather of modern zombies, George A. Romero, laid out, zombie movies are very rarely ever about the zombie. While Yeon Sang-Ho found smart ways to build upon the infected mythos, the focal point remains on the human condition as it faces down the barrel of extinction. Protagonist Jung-seok struggles with the residual remorse and trauma from the opening, which shapes his entire trajectory. Especially as he crosses paths with a family of survivors; single mother (Lee Jung-Hyun‘s Min-jung), her street-savvy daughters Joon (Lee Re), and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-Won), and their eccentric grandpa (Kwon Hae-Hyo). Opposite them is the tyrannical and insane Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-Jae) and Captain Seo (Koo Kyo-Hwan), who use the zombies as weapons and tools of power.

Yeon Sang-Ho propels the straightforward story forward at a brisk pace, bouncing between team good guys and team bad as the window for escape starts to close. The action sequences and car chases infuse the roughly two-hour runtime with plenty of adrenaline, but they also detract a bit from the emotional heft. It doesn’t help when the focus turns to the standard dystopian villains, who lack layers outside of the standard apocalypse induced insanity.

Outside of the recurring themes of sacrifice and atonement, Peninsula presents an interesting depiction of xenophobia and abandonment. Especially in the early scenes, which shows an eerily prescient world reaction to a deadly virulent infection. As the film shifts into hyperdrive on the action element, those intriguing ideas fall to the wayside, left in the rubble of explosions and heist pursuits. That the final act revisits the same redemptive arc of Train to Busan cheapens the impact, though it does at least build upon it. 

Gang Dong-Won sells the hell out of his role as a tortured former soldier turned mercenary, and it’s easy to buy into his motivations and inner turmoil. The real standouts are the youngest of the cast; Lee Re and the bubbly Lee Ye-Won perfectly encapsulate the emerging generation strong enough to outlast and thrive in a world the older generations helped decimate. With overly familiar character beats and the addition of too many characters on the playing field, though, Peninsula doesn’t pack quite as strong of a punch. 

Peninsula continues Yeon Sang-Ho’s habit of creating different stories within the same universe, Romero-style, but it’s weakened a bit by adhering too close thematically to its predecessor. This sequel goes full-throttle on the blockbuster spectacle, making for an exhilarating feature that exists in a heightened reality. Some of the novelty has worn off, however. There’s an overreliance on the cliched drama between characters that makes the film less effective in its storytelling. Even if it’s not as potent or as innovative as Train to Busan, Yeon Sang-Ho is masterful at manipulating his audience and remains a standout voice in the genre. The intimate aspects of this film might’ve suffered a bit, but the worldbuilding continues to grow in compelling ways that leave you looking forward to what the director has in store next.

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula releases in theaters and on VOD platforms August 21, 2020.


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