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PENINSULA is a spiritual sequel to the zombie thriller TRAIN TO BUSAN, which took the world by storm upon release in 2016. It doesn’t require knowledge of its predecessor as the films have nothing in common apart from both having zombies in them. Where BUSAN was a tight, character driven thrill ride which revitalized the sagging genre, PENINSULA is all about bigger and louder set pieces that override plot and mood at every turn.
The first twenty or so minutes are easily the best part of the film. Taking place at the same time as its predecessor, we join a group of survivors rushing towards Busan in hopes of safe haven. Led by Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), the group is stopped by a family looking for a ride and must make the cold decision to leave them to their fate. Four years later Jung-seok and his brother-in-law Chul-min are outcasts in Hong Kong, both traumatized and troubled by their experiences in Busan. When a local gangster promises them riches for a simple grab-and-run job in the peninsula, the duo choose to return home one last time.
Everything about the opening act is brilliant. The tension is palpable, the zombie transitions inventive, and there’s a sense of urgency reminiscent to BUSAN. Director Yeon Sang-ho knows how to craft tension from the inevitable, and his sense of place is remarkable. In a single quick montage we understand just how quickly things fall apart. By the time we’ve returned to the ruined mega-city, Sang-ho mines the iconic buildings and architecture for some truly unnerving scares.
And then it all falls apart.
The peninsula isn’t actually empty nor dead, but instead owned now by a roaming gang called Unit 631, who’ve founded a new life in the wasteland. Jung-seok and his team are ambushed, leaving half stranded while the rest are captured to join sadistic gladiator games inside the 631 complex. Attempting to escape back to the mainland, Jung-seok meets Ming-jung, a mother of two precocious daughters, who survive alone against both zombies and the roaming bandits.
What follows is a series of car chases and empty violence, none of which utilize the effective chills that Sang-ho so beautifully built in BUSAN. The zombies might as well not even be involved anymore, so minimized is their part this time around. The action that was grounded and weighty in the previous film is now cartoony and over-the-top. One chase sequence sees our heroes race through the city with thousands of zombies at their back, swerving through jumps and FAST AND FURIOUS style set pieces.
Characters are introduced, but unlike the lovable archetypes of BUSAN, none of the new ones make an impact. Dong-won does his best as the lead, and he certainly makes for a charismatic leading man, but his part is so underwritten that there’s very little to grasp on to. His brother in law, played by Kim Do-yoon, is likewise interesting in theory (a deeply traumatized man nullifying his pain with extreme vices), yet he’s given nothing to do. Only the villains seem to be having fun, namely the demented Colonel Hwang (Kim Min-jae) who chews on scenery like it’s going out of style.
There’s also a great set piece involving the gladiator arena built in an abandoned mall, but it’s sadly left mostly unexplored due to poor editing and pacing. Most of act two is split between two locations, but instead of allowing both to breathe and naturally progress, Sang-ho mysteriously has decided to edit both scenes to occur simultaneously. Delivering two lines from Dong-won, then cutting straight back to Do-yoon for a line or reaction shot, and then right back to Dong-won again.
A later twist reveals that two characters apparently share a history, but because there’s no prior indication that either even knows the other exists, such a turn is entirely meaningless.
If these were one or two isolated moments in a longer film, it wouldn’t be an issue. But instead similar things repeat multiple times over two hours, making PENINSULA feel like two or three different drafts that were glued together at the last minute without care for cohesion. On their own they’re all interesting and fun expansions of the Busan mythology, openly cribbing from the likes of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and MAD MAX, but put together the result feels chaotic in a way that’s more DOOMSDAY than FURY ROAD.
PENINSULA is being released in parts of the world with the full title of TRAIN TO BUSAN PRESENTS: PENINSULA; a baffling choice for various reasons. Mainly because the film has no characters from the first one, nor is it referenced in any part of the story. The film isn’t even set in Busan, but the port city of Incheon! By all accounts this is a standalone zombie film that realized how little it has to offer on its own, and instead decided to hitch its wagon to the far superior predecessor in hopes that nobody will notice.
But notice we did, as PENINSULA is a dire waste of potential with little payoff. Elements of it remain as impressive as Sang-ho’s claim to fame would promise, but they suffer from the George Lucas syndrome of being allowed to do everything without oversight. Ideas fly fast and loose all over the place, but none connect in any meaningful way.
It’s a film where every scene tries to be the climax, meaning that none of them are.