2016’s Train to Busan (Busanhaeng) is a marvel of a film. Directed by Yeon Sang-Ho and co-written with Park Joo-Suk, the story of a zombie outbreak in South Korea beautifully balances the emotional stakes (father-daughter) with the larger scope implications (downfall of Korean society) to a profoundly moving and satisfying conclusion. I was halfway through watching a rented disc of Busan when I had to stop it for an errand and decided to purchase the Bluray while I was out; that’s how good of a film it is. Later that same year, Yeon released Seoul Station (Seoulyeok), an animated prequel, in an effort to expand what he’d created. With the prestige around Busan still high, Yeon and co-writer Park Joo-Suk would create Peninsula, another story in the Busan world that looks at the aftermath of the outbreak with four years having passed since the events of the first story. Just like Seoul Station, Peninsula doesn’t follow any individuals from Busan which frees up the narrative to explore any number of themes or motivations. This may frustrate Busan fans who loved the small nature of the film, but will delight general audiences for the narrative’s small moments of absolute brilliance. Be forewarned: aspects of Peninsula make for a hard watch as some portions seem to hit a little close to home amid the global pandemic we’re currently facing.
Former South Korean military captain Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) lives in squalor in Hong Kong, considered an diseased outsider by the locals and constantly tormented by his failures during the evacuation of South Korea. He, his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), and a few others are offered a chance at changing their future by sneaking into what remains of Korea, tracking down a lost truck containing $20 million U.S., and returning the truck to Incheon Port for extraction. The small team go into Busan expecting the remaining zombies to be their only concern and are taken by surprise when a group of militarized survivors intervene in their operation. With three days until the boat that brought them returns to Hong Kong and the truck out of their possession, they race against the clock as it ticks away on their freedom and their lives as they know them.
It’s incredibly difficult these days to watch a zombie film and not feel some sense of reality tickling your amygdala, screaming “this is too close to home!” It’s not because there’s an unknown pathogen turning regular people into fierce and fast flesh-eating creatures, that’s still considered a free space on the 2020 Bingo Card, it’s the nature in which that pathogen is handled by the globe. Or, rather, how it’s handled by the individuals who engage with it. The opening of the movie, for instance, showing Jung trying to get his sister’s family to safety and, being a zombie film, it goes horribly wrong because an infected individual got on the boat. The boat taking people to safety. The boat with a bunch of terrified innocents was entirely threatened because someone, so driven by fear and selfishness, presumed they would be different, and took their infected behind onto a boat. Does that sound like anything going on right now as people around the world make plans for the holidays? Senator Ted Cruz posted this image in response to what he considers a politicizing of COVID-19 when requests came down asking people not engage in behaviors which might prolong the pandemic and/or increase infection rates which are already starting to overload our medical resources. Within the context of the opening scene of Peninsula, is Senator Cruz Jung or the infected? In the context of Busan, is he more like protagonist Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) or business man Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung)? As Peninsula continues, we learn that a great deal of the world has closed its borders to South Korea in fear of what may happen if just one of the survivors makes it out. It’s as though, when faced with a terrible, highly contagious, and absolutely unknown pathogen, the fictional governments get it better than the real ones. Any good horror film is as much an exploration of something as it is a means of terrifying and, frankly, what makes Peninsula a stronger watch is the growing sense of realism amid all the fiction.
In regard to the fiction, a great deal of folks responded to Peninsula with a degree of disdain due to its tenuous connection to Busan. Honestly, the best way to look at Peninsula is the way Hobbes and Shaw connects to the Fast & Furious series, except with action sequences that are smartly designed to move the story forward, not just show off, and fewer narrative plot holes. That’s right, the stunt team on Peninsula puts together several clever sequences that help the action-driven story be more than car chases, gun fu, and zombie survival. Soon after the team arrive in Korea, Jung stumbles upon an encased glass walkway filled with zombies. On its own, it’s a stark reminder of the threats lurking around every unseen spot, but it comes back around in the climax beautifully, so that the audience is not only given a delightful payoff from the set-up but it also helps to establish geography of where the characters are relative to where they’re headed. Amid the chaos, little notes like these serve to help the audience feel like they can follow along. Regarding the use of familiarity, Yeon dresses up one specific set so that Busan fans will immediately feel like they are returning to a place they know, even if it looks different. The set is where the survivors hold a gross competition wherein they force people to try to avoid captured zombies in a closed-in space. For my money, that space is intended to be the same airport terminal Seok-woo navigates to get him and his daughter to the military before they realize it’s been overtaken. By using this space, the audience brings with them the same tension and terror of the original events, making the reuse of the space under new conditions a little more dark. In another scene, Jung uses the doors of rundown cars to block a horde of zombies from following him as he dashes away. It’s a small thing, but one which highlights Jung’s creativity and spatial awareness, able to adapt and use what’s near him to survive.
Where Peninsula falters a bit is in the general exploration of character. Once Jung is established, his journey doesn’t really change as survivor’s guilt is a tough obstacle to overcome. It’s not that the film doesn’t mine this or that Gang doesn’t do his level best as the mostly silent operator, it’s that he’s not much of a cypher for the audience. Same with the “bad guys” of the film: those who hire Jung to go to Korea and those who hunt him when he arrives. There’s a great deal of subtext as to why Jung is hired, but there’s nothing more to go on beyond what we see and the survivors are neither painted as saints nor psychos, just exactly as described: survivors. Where they fall more into the villain category is how they treat their fellows: do they hunt them for sport or do they save them? New characters Jooni (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye) are absolutely fantastic as the daughters of Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), a woman Jung knows, who happen to save Jung right when he needs it. As written, Jooni is a brilliant driver, capable of maneuvering through the ruined streets with such ease as to make Dominic Toretto look a little weak at the wheel and, as performed, Lee Re gives her layers which shine through via physical performance. Lee Ye’s Yu-jin is more of a clutch character and is utilized hilariously, bringing a sense of hope into otherwise dark territory. Largely, though, everyone is painted with a wide brush to keep the focus on the mayhem over an emotional journey, making the more emotional moments feel more saccharine than powerful.
If bonus features are your thing, the home release comes with four brief featurettes exploring the making of Peninsula. In each one, Yeon, Gang, Lee Re, and Lee Jung-hyun offer insights into the various aspects of making the film. While there are some neat tidbits, each one is so brief and the actors appear so uncomfortable at what appears to be a small press junket, that each one is only moderately enjoyable. For those debating which version of the film to purchase — 4K UHD, Bluray, DVD, or digital — go with the version which best suits your home setup. This review is based off of a Bluray viewing and the mostly nighttime scenes were easy to follow. Considering the obvious amount of CGI used to craft the car chases, it’s hard to speculate whether the higher resolution and HDR in a 4K UHD release would be worth the additional coin. It may increase the atmosphere intended by the set and production design, but the Bluray was lovely enough to look at, making the experience worthy enough without the upgrade. Audiophiles will be happy that both the Bluray and 4K HDR editions include Dolby Atmos tracks, should you have the set-up to take advantage. I only had a standard 5.1 set-up to use and the sound still felt immersive.
I get why some people were troubled by Peninsula when it came out because audiences expected something more like Train to Busan and, instead, they go a mix of pick-a-Fast and Furious movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, and a modern zombie flick. Honestly, I would describe Peninsula and its connection to Busan as more like the films of the Cloverfield series. Peninsula is very much its own thing, able to tell a complete and mostly satisfying story without ever having seen Busan. If you have, though, then Peninsula becomes a little bit richer, building off the investment in this fictional world audiences have already made. Plus, hats off to Yeon and Park for recognizing that continuing a story doesn’t mean following the same characters, but providing an opportunity to see how the world itself is changed, or not, by the prior characters’ choices. With luck, perhaps we’ll get another story in a totally different variety of genre. If anyone can do it, Yeon and Park clearly can.
Peninsula Special Features
- The Making of Peninsula
- The Sequel (1:43)
- The Action (2:31)
- The Director (1:29)
- The Characters (3:04)
- Theatrical Trailer
- Teaser Trailer
- Previews (3:04)
Available on digital October 27th, 2020.
Available on 4K UHD, Bluray, and DVD November 24th, 2020.
Head to the Well Go USA Peninsula website for more information.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.