A real blockbuster at last! After months of waiting for a big-budget cinematic experience that has both brains and brawn, the topically relevant Peninsula has finally wound its way into cinemas (yes, actual cinemas). The sequel to the breakout Korean hit Train to Busan delivers upon the promise of the original, expanding the world while doubling down on its core message of selflessness. If this is your first film after months of lockdown, you may find yourself oddly moved by simply watching a well-executed franchise film. I, for one, nearly cried while watching thousands of zombies repeatedly murdered in the name of entertainment.
Yeon Sang-ho has a great way of easing you into his films with pre-credit sequences that sum up the later film in a nutshell. Peninsula, with all new characters, contains a brilliant one as Jeon-soek (Gang Dong-won) fails to save his sister and nephew from being marauded on a boat from a horde of infected. Already we have a clear sense of the film’s core conflict: self-preservation versus self-sacrifice.
The film cuts four years later to contemporary Hong Kong, where Korean refugees are treated appallingly by the locals. With little to live for in his new country, or (in a comment on migrant crises throughout the world) any assurance of permanent residence, Joen-soek, along with his sister’s husband Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) and two strangers, accepts a shady offer from Chinese gangsters to secretly go back to Incheon in order to pick up an abandoned van filled with millions of US dollars.
It seems like a simple enough gig. Get in, get out. But these things are never simple, as these intrepid entrepreneurs are beset by locals whose humanity has been poisoned by survival. Coming across like a curious mix of Mad Max, 28 Weeks Later and The Last of Us games, Peninsula is a great example of how to expand a franchise without needing to overcomplicate in the world-building department.
Like in Train to Busan — which forced a selfish fund manager to realise his better self — Peninsula contains a strong moral through-line throughout: the virtue of selflessness and sacrifice in the face of almost certain death. While some slow-motion sequences, scored to hammy orchestral strings, can put too fine a point upon it, they’re neatly tied to the action, imbuing otherwise generic action scenes with meaning. Additionally, those tired of CGI hordes will appreciate the practical make-up and acting of the rapid zombies who move and run like real infected instead of mere dots on a computer screen.
Simply put, this is fun and fast filmmaking that is equal parts moving and terrifying while never losing its humanist instinct. And what it loses in the novelty factor and close-quarters terror of the original film, it more than makes up for in its clever inter-weaving narratives. Naturally, if the rest of the summer was overloaded with mega-budget actioners, my praise might not have been so high. Coming in probably the worst year for movies of all time, Peninsula feels like a minor miracle.