Our culture’s infatuation with zombies has spread across media, with a recent glut making these horror protagonists feel just as tired as their undead state would indicate. This malaise towards the subgenre is part of what made 2016’s Train to Busan such an invigorating breath of fresh air, with director Sang-ho Yeon infusing the genre’s framework with relentless thrills and a surprisingly pertinent thematic backbone (ruminations on people’s apathetic and self-serving attitudes during times of need have been exceedingly relevant with our ongoing pandemic). The director’s long-awaited follow-up Peninsula ups the ante from a scale perspective, generating an enthralling popcorn film that doesn’t quite replicate Busan’s magical formula.
Set four years after the events of Busan, Peninsula follows Jung-seok (Dong-Won Gang), a former soldier living on the outskirts of society after escaping zombie-infested Korea. Tortured by the death of his sister and nephew, Jung-seok embarks on an improbable mission back to Korea trying to recover a substantial cash amount. This mission morphs into a chance for redemption when he comes across Min Jung (Jung-hyun Lee) and her small-knit family, as Jung-seok tries to overcome past failings by guiding the family to safety.
Reactions to Peninsula have been relatively muted compared to its cult-classic predecessor, which feels to me more like a reflection of Busan’s greatness rather than Peninsula’s failings. This frenetic sequel thankfully doesn’t rest on the laurels of its contemporary, with Sang-ho Yeon dreaming up a new narrative direction to further exhibit his genre filmmaking prowess. Mixing a makeshift heist film with the colorfully twisted essence of a Mad Max dystopia, Yeon has a blast expanding his scope while integrating a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor throughout. It would have been easy for the writer/director to play to audiences’ comfort zone, but I give him credit for reinventing Busan’s framework while keeping its unique pleasures intact.
If you thought Dong-seok Ma punching out zombies was great, you are sure to enjoy the high-octane setpieces Yeon has in store. Whether its a car chase akin to the breathless thrills of the Fast and Furious or zany incidents of zombie bloodshed (the gladiator sequences are equally thrilling and deranged), Yeon’s smooth camerawork imbues a kinetic pulse that sings with each setpiece. It’s a blast to see Yeon stretch his budgetary restrictions to their limit, crafting big-budget thrills despite some questionable special effects work. Peninsula is endearingly campier than its predecessor, yet the central cast deserves credit for grounding the material in a sense of weight (Dong-Won Gang’s quiet confliction elevates the character’s archetype design).
Similar to other sequels, Peninsula trades in some of the original’s nuances for its newfound grandiosity. Busan is not only tightly-constructed, but it’s also a film made with purpose and humanity. Its characters, while not groundbreaking from a depth perspective, were infused with enough compassion and care for audiences to invest in their fight for survival. Peninsula’s increased scope ends up focusing more on narrative mechanics than impactful character beats, with none of the central figures here being memorable enough to register an impression. It’s also desperately missing the original’s thematic ruminations, potentially leaving some diehard fans disappointed with the sequel’s undercooked script.
Peninsula shows that bigger is not always better for sequels, but this taunt genre thrill ride still comfortably scratches that popcorn movie itch.