Director: Yeon Sang-Ho
Stars: Gang Dong-Won, Lee Jung-Hyun, Koo Kyo-Hwan
Man, zombie movies hit different during a pandemic I guess. As the UK enters its second government-ordered lockdown, its perhaps inopportune timing for Train to Busan presents: Peninsula to reach our shores, but here we are, making the best of things.
Peninsula moves time on four years, drops all the previous characters in the series, and focuses on a Korea that has been effectively quarantined from the rest of the world; its inhabitants forced to hunker down and adjust to a dangerous, unpredictable ‘new normal’. The aura conjured is rather like a new frontier; a failed state that the rest of the world has ring-fenced out of fear, with the perceptions between North and South irrevocably changed.
Here, it is the North – the titular outcrop – which offers the dwindling promise of sanctuary, in effect inverting the widely perceived relationship between the two Koreas. Yeon Sang-Ho’s film takes place in a flipped world, reflecting a collective fear that the prosperity of the South is tentative. Empires that rise must one day fall. It’s not just earthly assistance that has vacated these shores. As some grim spattered graffiti proclaims, “God has abandoned us”.
Perhaps fittingly, Peninsula presents a fractious narrative, with groups scattered here and there as gang mentality has set in. Our ‘hero’ is Jung Seok (Gang Dong-Won); a former soldier who, by sheer coincidence, is thrown into the mix with the woman he chose to abandon by the roadside at the time of the outbreak – Lee Jung-Hyun’s battle-hardened Min Jung. He recognises her immediately, but is uncertain whether she reciprocates. Elsewhere, a crazed gang known as ‘631’ pit survivors against infected in a grim form of gladiatorial sport.
Without the propulsive titular locale of Train to Busan to keep things tightly focused, the sprawl of Peninsula tends to breed a rather formless mishmash reminiscent, perhaps, of the latter Purge films, or Escape from New York without Snake Pliskin. We’re invited to watch a variety of different set pieces occur here and there, with varying levels of charm or pertinent connectivity. The young duo who rescue Jung Seok and carry him to their safe house provide an early bright spot; using a remote control car to herd zombies in a tunnel. But similar moments of charmed ingenuity become depressingly scarce. Peninsula trundles most of the time, moving more slowly and with less purpose than even it’s shambolic undead.
Director Yeon Sang-Ho (who helmed both Seoul Station and Train to Busan) has a lot to achieve with what seems like a mid-level budget, but even this is tellingly stretched. A frenetic action set piece in which the aforementioned kids swerve their way through streets of zombies is undermined by the not-quite-photo-realistic vehicle that is used instead of an actual stunt car. It’s too smooth and weightless, nullifying any sense of reward in the sequence. The same goes for a later, much longer chase and also most of the zombie hordes, for that matter. The rest of the set dressing (or should that be set distressing) has a solid Walking Dead feel to it, but that brings us to another point that feels increasingly tough to ignore.
Through over-saturation (and with a very real threat of actual illness all around us to boot), the zombie movie feels played-out at this point in time. Fantasies of cities – even whole countries – gone to waste face increasingly tough challenges in terms of offering something original or even merely claustrophobic. Our mundane reality is grim enough. Herds of undead feel too simplistic; cannon fodder divorced from any sense of grief or responsibility.
But aside from the culturally outdated feel (which is hardly its own fault), there’s just not enough to separate this from the glut of zombie pictures that’ve got there already, including this filmmaker’s own. This is where Peninsula fails. It’s samey, wishy-washy, too infrequently inspired. The spark that proved so popular in Yeon Sang-Ho’s prior installments is conspicuous in its absence. His blighted Korea is presented in a murk of dimly lit blues and teals, as though the colour palette were in sync with this paucity of ideas.
Peninsula ultimately fails to capitalise on the goodwill created by its predecessor. So much so that its cumbersome title here in the West suddenly makes a lot of sense. There’s not enough here to mark this feature out from the crowd, so it’s being marketed on the coattails of a previous box office bonanza. Due to circumstances, this flick won’t make anywhere near the same money. But it also wouldn’t have deserved to, either.