Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Gang Dong-won, Lee Jung-hyun, Kwon Hae-hyo, Kim Min-je, Koo Gyo-hwan, Kim Do-yoon, Lee Re, Lee Ye-won
Runtime: 1 hr 56 mins
Rating: NC16 (Violence)
Released By: Clover Films and Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 15 July 2020
Synopsis: When the zombie outbreak swept the entire nation, Jung-seok (GANG Dong-won) barely escaped South Korea alive. While living a life of despair in Hong Kong, he receives an enticing offer to return to the quarantined peninsula. His mission is to retrieve an abandoned truck in the middle of Seoul within a time limit and escape the peninsula silently. But his operation goes haywire when a mysterious militia known as Unit 631 ambushes Jung-seok’s small team, as well as even more vicious hordes of zombies. In his most desperate moment, Min-jung’s (LEE Jung-hyun) family saves him and he plans one last chance to escape the peninsula once and for all.
If it isn’t yet obvious, there isn’t a train to Busan in this sequel; instead, ‘Train to Busan: Peninsula’ takes place four years after the events of the first movie, and is set not in the eponymous city but rather in the capital of the titular Korean peninsula.
Than trying to graft a sequel onto an unambiguous ending, writer-director Yeon Sang-ho imagines a brand new story around a guilt-ridden ex-soldier named Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), who journeys back to Seoul together with his brother-in-law Cheol-min (Kim Do-yoon) to retrieve a truck carrying $20 million worth of US dollars.
In truth, Jung-seok isn’t on the mission for the money; rather, after failing to protect his sister and niece from being bitten while on board a fleeing cruise ship meant to bring them to refuge in Hong Kong, Jung-seok is determined not to let another member of his family die. Both men are joined by two others keen for some share of the loot, but neither of the latter duo will survive an ambush by the rogue militia Unit 631.
Oh yes, the danger this time round isn’t only from the flesh-eating monsters, but rather a group of sadistic human survivors who live in a walled-up compound and capture other humans for spectator sport. Cheol-min becomes one of the unfortunate captives of Unit 631, who are spray-painted with a number across their naked torsos and forced into a caged arena to fight for their lives against zombies in two-minute long survival games while their captors watch and bet on who would live.
Meanwhile, Jung-seok is rescued by two plucky children – Jooni (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won) – who display maturity and ingenuity well beyond their age. That is in part due to their circumstances, and in part due to the instruction of their tough mother Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun). Rounding out the family of three generations is their grandfather Mr Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo), a former military officer whose main preoccupation is communicating with a United States marine named Major Jane using CB radio.
When Min-jung learns that there is transport waiting to extract Jung-seok from the Korean peninsula if he manages to deliver the truck to Incheon Port, she hatches a plan to steal it from within the compound of Unit 631, in the hope of securing a better future for her two kids. It is there that Jung-seok realises Cheol-min is still alive, and decides to risk his life to try to save the latter.
There is also a subplot involving the sadistic commander Sgt Hwang (Kim Min-jae) of the third platoon of Unit 631, the officer Capt Seo (Koo Gyo-hwan) in charge of managing the compound’s food rations, and Capt Seo’s errand boy Pvt Kim. After discovering the bags of cash in the back of the truck, Capt Seo hatches a plan with Pvt Kim to secure passage out of the peninsula, but has to ensure that Sgt Hwang remains none the wiser.
Like the first movie, this is built on an ensemble, so despite being the ostensible lead, Jung-seok gets similar attention as some of the other colourful supporting characters. Probably the most memorable here is Jooni, whose extraordinary driving skills is easily the coolest thing in the film. Second only to Jooni is Min-jung, who gets to go all Furiosa with a machine gun when infiltrating the Unit 631 compound. And vis-à-vis Jooni and Min-jung, both Sgt Hwang and Capt Seo have their own suitably unhinged moments of sadistic glory, with the latter proving especially nasty in the last act.
The actors here are well-chosen for their respective roles. Gang plays the guilt-ridden protagonist without any heroic pretension, bringing his trademark understatement to a role which is richer thanks to his low-key gravitas. The three female Lees inject emotion, humour and grit, and their combined demonstration of girl power will have you cheering. On the other hand, Kim is authentically detestable as Sgt Hwang, and Koo complements the former’s showiness with a more subtle but no less depraved act.
As distinctive as these characters are, the highlight of the movie remains its tensely drawn action set-pieces. Unshackled from the confines of a locomotive, Yeon conceives three elaborate sequences – the first with Jooni rescuing Jung-seok from hordes of rampaging zombies after being ambushed by Unit 631, culminating in a nail-biting scene where Yu-jin employs her remote-controlled car to distract a group of the undead blocking the way out of an underpass; another where Jung-seok and Min-jung unleash pandemonium within the Unit 631 compound while trying to rescue Cheol-min and steal the truck; and last but not least, a jaw-dropping 20 min high-speed chase along a major Seoul thoroughfare with both zombies and rogue soldiers on both Min-jung and Jooni’s tail, reminiscent of the high-octane thrills in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.
It should come as no surprise that ‘Peninsula’ is Yeon’s most ambitious film to date, and the filmmaker, who began his ‘K-zombie’ trilogy with ‘Seoul Station’, deserves credit for expanding his post-apocalyptic vision to the entire Korean peninsula. Relative to its predecessor, the setting is significantly expanded here, but while it is inevitable that the story is a lot more expansive, Yeon keeps the pace tight throughout the two-plus hours with a combination of plot-, action- and character-driven elements.
So even though it has nothing to do with a train, you’ll walk away satisfied that ‘Train to Busan: Peninsula’ doesn’t simply aim to rehash the formula of the earlier movie; rather, Yeon ups the scale tremendously in imagining how the Korean peninsula would turn out four years after a zombie outbreak, devising a three-pronged narrative that holds its own amidst the adrenaline-pumping action. Though not by design, its thematic resemblance to real life makes this blockbuster even more momentous, but it is as apt a reminder as any of the cinematic thrills that we used to enjoy on the big screen before the unprecedented months-long closure brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Significantly expanding the post-apocalyptic world of 'Train to Busan', 'Peninsula' is as gripping a survival thriller as its predecessor with tensely drawn action amidst strong character moments)
Review by Gabriel Chong