For four years after the initial zombie outbreak, a unified Korean peninsula is completely quarantined from the rest of the world with the remaining survivors having to fend for themselves. A former Korean Captain, Jung Seok, who was one of the last survivors to escape pre-quarantine and now lives in Hong Kong, is hired for a four man team to return to the peninsula and retrieve an unmarked and abandoned truck stowed with $20 million dollars in U.S. currency. With a promise from a Hong Kong mafia boss to keep part of the loot for their recovery services in order to start a new life, the team agrees to the terms and embarks on the seemingly succeed mission only to find survivors who have gone mad, pillaging their mission and conscripting them into a malicious betting game of survival in a watery pit full of zombies.
The highly anticipated sequel to South Korea’s 2016 sleeper zombie hit, “Train to Busan,” docks into U.S. theaters and VOD services on August 21st and is entitled simply, “Peninsula.” From the bullet train rails to the a devastated Korean port, the predecessor film’s director, Yeon Sang-ho, returns with a zombie overrun post-apocalypse that completely metastasized Korean derived from a biological agent quickly spreading throughout the two cinematically unified, North and South Korea. Joo-Suk Park returns as co-writer alongside Yeon to provide heart clenching, brutal action-horror suspense and a human sense of selfless compassion that won the hearts of many genre fans with “Train to Busan.” Zombie hordes rampage down streets, alleyways, and toppling over cars, fences, and other structures as a collective flesh easting unit that specializes in dominating and ravaging for the pure motive of infection and while that sounds all hip and cool that the “War World Z” and “I Am Legend” running zombie pandemonium makes for a glitzy entertainment feedbag, the Next Entertainment World and RedPeter Film production punches down on the gas pedal of gaslighting audiences with more of a “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift” with zombies, revving more to the tune of an exasperated exhaust rather than finishing strong with gripping storytelling.
As a standalone film, the story doesn’t return the surviving characters from “Train to Busan.” Instead, a whole new set of characters reset the parameters of expectations, starting with the guilty conscious of the grief-stricken ex-soldier, Jung Seok, played by Dong-won Gang, who will star in Scott Mann’s upcoming disaster film “#tsunami.” Seok’s a reserved and stoic individual whose good a gun play, but isn’t the thinker when a plan is needed in place and while Dong-won Gang gives a par performance, the overall package of the lead character is sorely two-dimensional. This leaves room for other characters flourish, such as the mother and children Seok attempts to save on a second go-around. The mother, played by Lee Jung-hyun, has more grit that clearly defines her underlining hope for not only her salvation, but also her children who’ve known nothing but death, destruction, and meaning of being devoured growing up in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. On the slim change of success, she implements a plan to infiltrate Unit 631, former military turned murderous scavengers, to steal back a satellite phone and a truck full of cash while not becoming zombie chow or get caught in Unit 631’s sadistic survival methods. That brings us to the villains, the real villains, where are not the zombies, but the section 8 soldiers of Unit 631, Captain Seo (Koo Kyo-hwan) and Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae). Though Seo and Hwang bring internal tension to the table, a mental game of cutthroat chess, they’re inevitably soft against the main threat, a combined effort of Jung= Seok and Min-jung, and don’t spill enough blood and craziness onto the screen to make them worthy of the antagonist position. “Peninsula” rounds out the cast with Kim Do-yoon, Lee Re, Lee Ye-won, Moon Woo-jin and Bella Rahim.
As almost methodical as it is with any second film in a series, “Peninsula” failed to be a rejuvenating and transcending sequel to “Train to Busan,” abandoning the first story’s benevolence for CGI flair that extends to not only the zombie hordes, but to the car chases. As excellent as the rendered zombies are slammed against the drifting cars can be represented, in what “Peninsula” can be described as an “Escape from L.A.” meets “Land of the Dead” meets “Mad Max: The Road Warrior,” the cars themselves are a product of computer imagery with little authentic driving happening. While the effects are not bad (they’re pretty good chiefly obscured by dim lit night scenes), the sensation of being scammed can’t be ignored as the vehicles operate unnaturally and maneuver in impossible situations without blowing a tire or upending or just frankly be dead in the water with an overheated and stress tussled engine that frags zombies left and right, becoming a collective character to have the highest kill count. That disingenuous feeling also spreads to the overly long-winded ending that tries really, really hard to capture a courageously defiant and heroic moment of family and personal redemption and much of the blame lies on director Yeon Sang-ho with a drawn out awkwardness and edit that made it seem satirical. In light of some positive words for “Peninsula,” the zombies are a greater, gigantic force that swarm on a colossally epic scale more so than the much more compact “Train to Busan” and, as aforementioned, the structured CGI isn’t of the degraded detail variety so the hordes never look cheap or obviously artificial alongside the more palatable, practical versions. What’s also interesting about “Peninsula” and what makes it separate from “Train to Busan,” which perhaps laid the foundation for, is “Peninsula” has integrated the western counterparts as English speaking actors chime in as U.S. Military, U.N. peacekeepers, or English mafia bosses based in the U.K. This challenges the Korean actors to speak a few different languages, especially English, inclining “Peninsula” as more of a global problem than an isolated Korean one.
The zombie genre isn’t just defined by the ungodly amount of undead bodies reaping the world of every living soul, but is also defined by the diversity of chaos-driven social structures people find themselves confronted with in the action-heavy “Peninsula,” arriving into U.S. theaters on August 31 and distributed by Well Go USA Entertainment. This review will not contain the A/V aspects of the release as it’s a theatrical screening of the feature, but the theater specs will look something like this: projection is in scope lens format at an aspect ratio of a widescreen 2.39:1, a surround sound 5.1 stereo mix, Korean/English/Cantonese language with English subtitles, and has a runtime of just under two hours at 116 minutes. I will note that some scenes are very dark, but this only adds to the complete blackout of a civically desolated Korean peninsula. From fast trains to fast cars, “Peninsula” has retained the adrenaline popping rampant style with weaving, bobbing, and chassis chucking zombie bodies like the ball in a pinball machine despite a facile approach, but is ultimately missing that down-to-Earth social context complexity aimed to provoke thought and shed a few tears as an inferior part two of the “Train to Busan” universe.