It can be frustrating to watch a film that doesn’t seem to understand its own strengths; it’s downright maddening to watch three of them. With “Peninsula” (stylized for its North American release as “Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula”), director Yeon Sang-ho has now made an entire trilogy of exuberant, maximalist, and ultimately tiresome zombie movies that cannibalize their best ideas in a crazed dash towards mediocrity. This erratic and derivative new chapter is by far the most chewed up of the three, as its outsized ambition (or at least its scale) makes it that much easier to see how Yeon’s latest yarn shrinks away from its own potential like it’s scared of the movie it could’ve been. At the end of a summer that we’ve all just been trying to survive, there’s definitely some fun to be found in a go-for-broke action saga that isn’t afraid to play around with the inhumanity that tends to follow a pandemic, but “Peninsula” is just another two hours of screaming at all the self-sabotage you see on your TV.
Set in the same world as “Train to Busan” and “Seoul Station” (but sharing none of the same characters from Yeon’s crossover hit or its stilted animated prequel), “Peninsula” continues the series’ tradition of hitting the ground at a full sprint and ensnaring you with a strong hook. While most of the film is set four years after the fast-acting zombie outbreak seen in the previous installments, the story kicks off with a Z-day prologue that forefronts all of the things this trilogy does best.
A mysterious plague has just begun to sweep across Korea, and military man Jung-seok (“Haunters” star Gang Dong-won) is speeding his family to the ferry that will take them to the safety of Japan; he’s too scared and self-concerned to stop for anything, even the desperate mother and her two young kids who plead for help on the side of the road. All seems well once Jung-seok makes it to the crowded boat, but it only takes one infected passenger for things to go south in a hurry, and just a few minutes later Jung-seok is watching his nephew feast on his sister in agonized slow-motion (echoes of the MV Sewol tragedy are even more pronounced here than they were in “Train to Busan”).
When we reconnect with Jung-seok and his widowed brother-in-law (Kim Do-yoon) in the present, they’re scraping by in a Hong Kong that’s afflicted by virulent prejudice against Korean refugees — the phrase “China Virus” comes to mind. As we learn during an inexplicable exposition dump in which some random white guy brings us up to speed while guesting on a late night talk show, North Korea is the only part of the peninsula that hasn’t been overrun by the walking dead (no logical reason is given for this strange quirk of fate, so we’re left to assume that zombies just have a lot of respect for the DMZ — not that this tantalizing bit of world-building is ever the least bit relevant to the story).
Awkwardness aside, this setup is basically the triple Yahtzee of Yeon’s auteurist touch: Flesh-eaters in confined spaces, Hobbesian incivility between strangers, and ultra-violence that walks the line between slapstick and tragedy. By the time a gangster hires Jung-seok and his brother-in-law to slip back into zombie-infested Incheon and steal one of the massive caches of money that was left behind in the exodus, it seems as if Yeon has successfully managed to scale his vision up to blockbuster size without letting things get away from him (and done so on a tight $16 million budget).
The first big set piece back on Korean soil betrays a few of the more obvious cost-cutting measures — the dreary fuzz of the computer-generated Incheon cityscapes during the nighttime heist is almost as video game-like as the car chase that follows — but the film’s irreverent tone excuses much of its shoddiness. It’s only during the third act that it really starts to feel like Yeon’s pockets aren’t deep enough for what he’s trying to do. Before that, most of the movie is devoted to lame dialogue scenes between kooky characters in cramped ruins who just want to find a way out of this story altogether; Yeon’s take on the genre might be inspired by the horde mentality of “World War Z” and its rotting waves of the undead, but “Peninsula” itself owes more to DIY post-apocalyptic visions like “Escape from New York” and “The Road Warrior.”
And for much of the first act, “Peninsula” is able to channel large-scale zombie spectacle through a confined setting and convey the palpable feeling of a world overrun. The heist angle isn’t as strong a hook as the narrow train cars from the previous movie, but some fun characters show up to buoy the action once Jung-seok’s party is ambushed by the demented remnants of a rogue militia called Unit 631. Our hero is rescued from the attack by two scrappy little girls (Lee Re and Lee Ye-won) who’ve grown up in the wasteland, rock a solid day-glo aesthetic, and think of the zombies and the soldiers as their play toys — their “six years old and already out of fucks to give” attitude is a nice contrast against Jung-seok’s permanent state of panic, and the girls even come with their own kooky grandpa character (Kwon Hae-hyo) to keep the focus on the family.
Despite how Jung-seok and his brother-in-law are warned not to “screw up trying to save each other,” “Peninsula” is predictably keen on exploring the flaws of such self-preservation, and how the continued survival of our species is dependent upon our rejection of capitalism, racism, and the rest of the dehumanizing forces that drove us against each other even before the whole world got sick of each other. The good guys save Jung-seok because it’s the right thing to do; the bad guys force his brother-in-law to participate in a trite zombie fight club for their own sick amusement (yes, we’ve reached a point in movie history where the idea of a “zombie fight club” can feel trite). But Yeon’s script explores this stuff with the disinterest of a first draft and wastes its unique setting on a paint-by-numbers plot; the preamble might tease a politically-tinged examination of empathy and self-interest, but all of that is tossed aside in favor of internecine squabbles and limp inevitabilities. Did these people even watch “28 Days Later?” Keeping zombies “alive” for sport never ends well!
The idea of South Koreans fleeing to the zombie-free North is never unpacked, the world’s treatment of Korean refugees becomes a moot point once the movie arrives at Incheon, and Jung-seok himself is an unremarkable protagonist whose festering sense of guilt becomes the closest thing the film has to a coherent emotional arc. The redemption arc that Yeon contrives for him hinges on an unforgivably stupid narrative convenience that should have been tweaked long before anyone got to set. You can feel the air wheezing out of the bag as “Peninsula” tries to downshift away from a more nuanced portrait of post-apocalyptic living.
Yeon eventually just throws his hands up and surrenders to the cheesy spectacle of it all with a frenzied third act that finds the entire cast in a death race to the border. It’s here — in an amusingly unmoored but ultimately exhausting sequence that looks like someone trying to recreate “Fury Road” on a Nintendo 64 — that Yeon stops being able to afford his own ambition, and the film’s budget suddenly feels like a rubber band stretched over a hula-hoop. A trained animator who isn’t afraid to abandon verisimilitude the moment it threatens to get in the way of a good time, Yeon mines a certain “Speed Racer”-esque delirium from the cartoonish finale, but the comicality of this mayhem doesn’t square with the rest of a movie that, at one point, had more serious things on its mind. By the time “Peninsula” clumsily arrives at its closing statement about the possibility of forgiveness, you can’t help but wonder if this entire franchise is beyond salvation.
Well Go USA will release “Peninsula” in select theaters on Friday, August 21.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.