It was recently announced that the hit South Korean zombie film about a father and his young daughter caught in the middle of a rapidly spreading zombie apocalypse while on a train to Busan (can you guess the title) was getting an American remake. The announcement sparked more than a little exasperation that can be summed up by Bong Joon Ho’s iconic quip at the Golden Globes during his Parasite win last year: ‘once you overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to many more amazing films’.
Regardless of the US’s plans for adapting South Korea’s award-winning filmography (Bong’s Snowpiercer — which was in English to begin with — has had a recent TV remake by Netflix, and talks are in the works for an Americanised Parasite), the director of the original Train to Busan, Yeon Sang Ho, has returned with a proudly Korean sequel that is perfectly accessible to the overseas audiences that loved his former international hit.
Four years after the zombie virus resulted in the complete quarantine of South Korea, ex-soldier Jung Seok (Gang Dong Won) is living a refugee’s life in Hong Kong when he is offered $2.5 million to journey back home and recover a van full of money. He and a small group of refugees return to the Korean peninsula they all thought was lost, only to find pockets of survivors holding out for the chance of escape. Separated from his allies, Jung Seok is rescued by two young girls (Lee Re and Lee Ye Won) in their stylishly armoured car who take him back to their home to meet their mother (Lee Jung Hyen), and an old man (Kwon Hae Hyo) convinced there’s someone coming to save them. Together, they might be able to pull off escaping the peninsula once and for all.
The first act of the film gives a bit too much attention to setting up the protagonists’ tragic backstory from back in Train to Busan’s time — who would’ve guessed that bottling survivors together on a ship in the middle of the ocean might be a bad idea if one infected person could lead to a few more zombies than desired? But as the runtime gets going, we appreciate Jung Seok’s hefty expositional relationship to his brother-in-law (Kim Do Yoon) which will ultimately influence his climactic turning point from solider to hero.
Creatively, the film is competently put together, with deftly edited action sequences and truly beautiful VFX designed not just for foreboding effect. The CGI in the high-octane action car sequences may be a little clunky, but the moonlight pouring over the vine-infiltrated cityscape shows genuinely impressive craftsmanship. The zombies scattered through it all the more disquieting, not least because these aren’t the slow, fumbling zombies you might expect; operating on vision and hearing, if they catch a glimpse of something they’ll be coming at you full pelt.
Heading up the cast is Gang Dong Won, a prolific South Korean actor well versed in action films who fits into his role with practiced ease. But, like its predecessor, Peninsula uses an ample ensemble to bring out the humanity of its story. Child actress Lee Re gives a particularly notable performance considering most of her time is spent sitting behind the wheel (of a car she was too young to drive while filming) and reacting to what was ultimately edited in later. Alongside the mother-daughters trio kicking ass (the real highlight of the film), a group of soldiers turned rogue commandeer the van Jung Seok needs to return home. But an internal power struggle between the likes of a Captain, portrayed by Koo Kwo Hwan, and his Sergeant, played by Kim Min Jae, makes more problems for everyone.
The creative team behind the film couldn’t have predicted what landscape their work would ultimately be released into, but there are certainly some moments that are worth mentioning. In a bar in Hong Kong near the start of the film, Jung Seok and his brother-in-law are verbally abused, being blamed for the zombie virus that originated in South Korea. The sequence holds a note of similarity to the hatred and abuse the Chinese and wider South East Asian community have been experiencing in the times of COVID-19. Though presumably completely unintentional, it feels all too timely, as does the American news presenter’s dismissive attitude to the Korean tragedy at the start of the film. Hopefully recognising and celebrating the talents and attributes of films like this, and the SEA creators behind them, could be one step towards progress.
Peninsula doesn’t waste time squeezing in as many references to its predecessor as it can, like we’d expect from Hollywood. Instead, it allows itself to stand on its own two feet, using Yeon Sang Ho’s original world as the foundations to tell a new story. With the same anchor of family and hope in the younger generation, Peninsula is a worthy follow up to Train to Busan, if a little more of what we’d expect from a typical zombie action film.
Peninsula is available to stream on Shudder and Amazon Prime now
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.