Four years ago, the overused and increasingly predictable zombie genre got a shot in the arm with Train to Busan, a South Korean film from director Yeon Sang-ho about a young father desperately attempting to get his little daughter to her mother via train as a zombie pandemic breaks out all around them. Even if it veered close to outright sentimentality at times, Train to Busan differed from most of the films and TV shows we’ve seen in this genre due to its genuine bond of love between its main characters, and the flickers of empathy and humanity found therein. And on a technical level, Yeon crafted his film with a kinetic energy that had been missing from the genre as of late.
Train to Busan was not just a monster hit in its native land but amassed an international following as well, along with critical acclaim across the board, making a sequel inevitable. Throwing another group of characters on a train would be silly, so director Yeon made the decision to create an entirely new story set in the first movie’s universe–thus the awkward U.S. title Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula.
But the title isn’t the only thing that’s contrived about Peninsula. While the movie contains glimmers of what made the original seem so fresh, the sequel relies much more heavily on blatantly lifting aspects of other zombie and action movies as it tries half-heartedly to expand the world of the first film. Where Train to Busan seemed like the distinctive work of a new genre voice, Peninsula plays more like a film made by a committee that picked the things it liked best about other movies.
In a prologue, South Korean Marine captain Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), his elder sister (Jang So-yeon), her husband Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), and his nephew Dong-hwan escape by car–passing another family begging for help on the side of the road–in order to board the last ship out of South Korea before it is quarantined. But when an infected man also makes it aboard the ship, another outbreak is soon unleashed and both Jung-seok’s sister and nephew are dead.
Four years later, the Korean peninsula is completely sealed off by the surrounding nations in order to contain the zombie plague. A guilt-ridden Jung-seok and his brother-in-law are living in Hong Kong where Koreans are treated as pariahs by the fearful populace. Soon, however, they are given a chance by a shady American and his Hong Kong cohorts to join two other Koreans on a mission: sneak back into the Korean city of Incheon by boat and retrieve a truck containing $20 million, of which the four of them will receive half.
The team is smuggled into the abandoned metropolis and finds the truck, but they are ambushed by Unit 631, a violent militia led by the psychotic Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae) and unstable Captain Seo (Koo Kyo-hwan). From there things go to hell real fast.
Train to Busan was the pleasing thriller that let us to get to know a small group of characters in a contained, literally rocketing narrative that was a metaphor for Korean society itself. By contrast Peninsula offers up a bigger world and a larger set of characters while having little to say about either. We never access the empathy we felt for the father and daughter of the first film, whose singular quest felt both tragic and triumphant. Here it’s just a loose series of escapes and battles involving one-note characters, from the tormented yet nearly super-powered hero to the maniacal military leader who does his best to channel Captain Rhodes from Day of the Dead.
With a less than captivating story and cast to watch, you’ll instead start ticking off the many other films that Peninsula borrows from, including but not limited to the aforementioned Day of the Dead, its sequel Land of the Dead (a stratified society), World War Z (international scope), Escape from New York (mission into a sealed-off, destroyed city), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (combat in a gladiatorial arena), Mad Max: Fury Road (a climactic chase that takes up the entire third act), and more.
But what is more disappointing is director Yeon borrows from his own previous film, trying desperately during Peninsula’s climax to wring the same kind of poignant response from the death of a character that he achieved effortlessly in the finale of Train to Busan. But he doesn’t earn it here, and the movie quickly plunges from overtly hollow sentimentality to exploitative emotional porn.
On a technical level, Peninsula is pretty impressive. The early scenes of Jung-seok and his party entering the abandoned city have an eerie, painterly feel, and despite some darker scenes, director Yeon and cinematographer Lee Hyung-deok pull off a number of hauntingly beautiful shots. The way light is used to distract and deflect the zombies (who can’t see at night, when most of the film takes place) also makes for some striking sequences.
But one can’t help but feel that Peninsula is a missed opportunity, or perhaps one that shouldn’t have been taken in the first place. There are only so many places that the zombie genre can go, and while Train to Busan took us somewhere new, Peninsula leaves us stranded on the same old island.
Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula opens in limited theatrical release on Friday, Aug. 21.