I really enjoyed the surprise 2016 Korean horror hit Train to Busan. It’s a simple, straightforward and somewhat violent South Korean horror thriller that involves a group of zombie apocalypse survivors trying to board a train heading from Seoul to the sanctuary city of Busan. Like World War Z, the zombies in Train to Busan don’t shamble along, they sprint and climb over each other in their mindless lust for living flesh, and it’s pretty intense. The long chase narrative is reinforced by how quickly characters turn into another of the zombie hoard after they’ve been killed. Train to Busan did very well at the box office, so it’s no surprise that a sequel has been released.
Known as Peninsula, the sequel is tied to the first film by its longer name of Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula. Awkward, particularly when the only real tie-in is the actual zombie outbreak: Most of Peninsula takes place four years after Train to Busan and, spoiler alert, the entire peninsula of South Korea has been abandoned to the zombie hoards. Refugees are living in the underbelly of Hong Kong, inhabiting warehouses and neon-lit alleyways reminiscent of Blade Runner.
Peninsula opens with handsome young Marine captain Jung-Seok (Gang Dong-won) driving his sister, her husband, and their little boy Dong-hwan (Moon Woo-jin) to a refugee ship heading to Hong Kong. They drive past a broken down car, whose driver begs them to at least give their little daughter a ride to the port but Jung-Seok refuses. On the refugee ship there’s an outbreak and only Jung-Seok and brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) survive.
Four years have passed and it’s clear there’s no treatment or solution for the zombie outbreak. Whatever it is, the powers that be have conceded the entire Korean peninsula to the undead. All those treasures, all that money, just abandoned and left to the zombies. It’s no surprise when a local gang leader offers Jung-Seok and Chul-min the chance to sneak back to South Korea to find and recover a truck known to be filled with millions in cash. They’ll get to keep some of the money for themselves and will finally rise out of their grinding poverty.
The hodgepodge group of mercenaries land at Incheon (a South Korean port city on the west side of the peninsula, quite close to the DMZ border between North and South Korea) and after some rather creepy late night encounters with zombies, actually find the truck. Unfortunately, they are ambushed by members a militia gang called Unit 631 and Chul-min is dragged off to “the game”, where it’s prisoners versus zombies. If this all sounds like Escape from New York, it’s because the only thing missing is Snake Pliskin.
Meanwhile, Jung-Seok is rescued by an unlikely couple of heroes, sisters Joon (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won). They’re humans, alive in the zombie zone, and have gained some very particular skills. Joon drives like she was rejected from the Fast and Furious franchise for being too good, too dangerous and too aggressive a driver. Let’s just say that if she were painting little stick figures on the side of her vehicle for every zombie she hit, it’d be completely full twice over.
The girls bring Jung-Seok to their mom Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and the semi-crazy grandfather Elder Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo), where the five of them hatch a plan to escape from New York, uh, Incheon Port. Dong-hwan, meanwhile, has met the crazy gang boss Sgt. Hwang (Kim Min-jae), the titular gang leader Captain Seo (Koo Kyo-hwan) and Seo’s confidante Private Kim (Kim Kyu-baek). Yes, that’s a lot of characters. Basically, however, the story is of Jung-Seok working with his newly found family to escape, while Chul-min tries to survive in an environment that seems like the Korean version of Thunderdome. When their paths all cross, the last act of the film is basically vehicular mayhem in the vein of Mad Max and while it’s great fun, it’s also unbelievable chaos that often looks more like a video game than an actual movie.
There are some political overtones if you look for them too, including the refugee ship being captained by a US soldier who won’t tell the South Korean military what’s going on, a North Korean TV commentator gloating that they didn’t have a zombie infection and a final scene involving United Nations troops. But Peninsula also seems to have kept one eye on the international box office and doesn’t follow through on any of these promising narrative opportunities.
I really wanted to like Peninsula as a big fan of Train to Busan and I rewatched the first film before watching the sequel, a Korean zombie double feature. But while the first works really well as horror chase movie featuring alarmingly fast and aggressive zombies, the sequel lacks the charm and wit of its predecessor. Is it worth watching as a distraction from our crazy world of 2020? Yeah, sure. What isn’t? But Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula could have been a far better, smarter and more entertaining movie with a better script and story.