Ah, nothing like a zombie horror flick to fuel your pandemic paranoia, ain’t it?
If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that we should remain calm, not post fake news, wear a mask in public, practice social distancing, wash your hands, etc. So, what do you do when you are facing a zombie apocalypse. You gotta do the right thing, mate. Remain totally calm. Post verified information. Wear a mask (*sees zombie chewing on a torn human limb about 20 meters away). Uhhh… practise social distancing? (*zombie twitches and lunges toward me) AHH, screw that S***! RUN!!!!
The 2016 film, Train to Busan, was a remarkably fun and inventive concept piece from director Yeon Sang-ho that was set within the confined walls of a train. Boxing the audience in invoked a sense of claustrophobia as the undead prowled the carriages, twitching unnaturally as they anticipated their next live meal. It was a thrilling gorefest, taking chunky bites at every turn; no one was truly safe.
Nevertheless, its true excellence was laid out in its memorable on-screen personalities. The characters played by Gong Woo, little Kim Su-an, and Ma Dong-seok had everyone rooting for them to make it through due to their drive to survive and protect their loved ones at all costs. I bet most despised that one “selfish” businessman who decided to take matters into his own hands and barricade up parts of the train that were seemingly doomed, yet survived till the climax of the film. Indeed, it was this mix of personalities that made it such a captivating commentary on humanity and morality.
Maybe you might not be aware of this, but in actual fact, there was a follow-up to Train to Busan, albeit in animated form. Seoul Station, which was also directed by Sang-ho, was released less than a month after the live-action feature film as a sort of prequel. As the name suggests, the film takes place at Seoul Station, one day before the virus outbreak, and focuses on a young runaway girl who attempts to survive in a society who perceives her as disposable.
Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula, the third entry in the TTBCU (Train to Busan Cinematic Universe – jk. I made that up), was initially set to screen at Cannes this year. Alas, the festival was ultimately canned and the film ultimately stuck to premiering with a theatrical release. So, is it worth risking your life to make a trip to the Peninsula? Let’s take a look.
The film opens in the midst of dread and panic. South Korea is in utter chaos as the virus unleashes itself across the land. Citizens are rushing to safety as the infected rate climbs every minute. We are introduced to our lead Oppa, Jung Seok (Gang Dong-won), a Marine captain attempting to get his family on board a ship. However, tragedy strikes the vessel, and Jung Seok is forced to abandon his sister and nephew to the ravenous mouths of the undead. This event causes a pang of enormous guilt to swell within him in the years to come, haunting his thoughts. When an opportunity arises whereby Jung Seok has to return to the peninsula for a mission, he takes it. Can Jung Seok rid himself of this guilt and survive the perils of the undead a second time?
The first half of the movie is particularly interesting whereby it is dedicated to building the post-pandemic world. When the mission first alights at the peninsula, a decent amount of time is spent to fill the audience in on what seemingly happened after the land was abandoned for four years. Establishing shots of the forlorn cityscape in the moonlight are utilized to full effect, driving the desolation home with scratched out billboards, damaged bridges, and a legion of cars strewn all over the vicinity like lifeless insects scattered on the ground. Indeed, what I absolutely adored was how the scene was consistent with the rules established in Train to Busan. In order to maintain their cover, Oppa and co. had to rely solely on moonlight to get around as any bright flashes of light or any loud noises would trigger the zombies to charge furiously. It was tense, recognising that any wrong move could prove to be fatal.
Of course, what use would a follow-up be without building upon the universe? As such, we are treated to not just one, but multiple baddies. Nah, these aren’t hungry zombies. These are the personalities you are meant to despise. Leading the pack are Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae), who delights in intimidating his prey, and there’s captain Seo (Koo Kyo-hwan) whose self-serving schemes make him a bane for both his allies and enemies. They are men without a conscience, pouncing upon other individuals who are not part of their sick society. For their own entertainment, they unleash a horde of zombies in a game of survival. They reside in a landscape of bodies and death as their manic laughter fill the arena.
On the other side of the spectrum is a family trying their best to survive on the condemned grounds. Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), her two daughters, and her father had been living there for the past four years having escaped from captain Seo’s camp. However, they are presented with the fine opportunity to get off the peninsula when they cross paths with Jung Seok. Min-jung, the warrior mama that she is, desperately resolves to embark on a dangerous quest with her family to obtain their ticket out of hell. Indeed, the two aforementioned groups are desperate survivors. However, one faction has lost all of its colours. There is no humanity for this group, whereas Min-jung still clasps on to a hope that may still exist for her family.
If I had one word to describe the action, that would be it. This film is literally bursting at the seams with kinetic energy and no, we’re not just looking at people attempting to escape from zombies by foot. No! We’re talking about car chases, gunfights, etc. The creativity absolutely manifests when it comes to executing what is already dead… in style! It’s got that hit em’, sock em’, bowl em’ sort of thing going on as the ever-multitudinous brain-chompers attempt to get at our protagonists from all directions. SUVs plummet into these creatures with little to no remorse, crushing their gnarly heads between the tarmac and rubber.
Now, as much as the action sequences were thrilling, they were also heavily reliant on CGI which did take me out of the film a number of times. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing heinous about utilising visual effects. However, in aforementioned scenes like the car chases, the shots of the actors in the vehicles interpolated with the fully CG vehicles, environment, and zombies did not gel as well as I would have desired. There were moments where I would be in awe and the next, utterly flabbergasted by the unconvincingly rendered visuals. Cars flip and crash in an unnaturally high paced manner, generating dissonance within the sequence.
Moving on, there are several scenes that contained English dialogue, presumably included to appeal to a wider market. However, these scenes featured some questionable performances from the actors. There tends to be a whole lot of exaggerated body language and forced words coming out from these performers. It was uncomfortable to watch, and I can only say that I breathed a sigh of relief when the film’s natural tongue came back on.
Nonetheless, I believe the film’s weakest component is its climax. Leading up to the film’s resolution, the plot had already lost a little steam when it came to the cohesiveness of its structure and characters. Nevertheless, the film absolutely bottles it by its end, darting aimlessly in its quest to complete the arcs of the main characters. It also felt as if there was an attempt to recreate the emotional climax of its predecessor. Nevertheless, it fails to achieve a similar effect.
The problem is that unlike Train to Busan, whereby the emotional crux of the film lies in the relationship between Seok-woo and his daughter, the relationships in Peninsula are not developed well enough. Not enough time is given to fully flesh out why these characters are willing to risk their lives for each other. As such, when a certain protagonist bites the dust and the subsequent tears fall, the scene focuses on the miserable visages in slow motion, drawing out the supposed sentiments from the characters. However, when the scene finally ends, said device is used literally moments after that to form another long drawn scene before giving the characters a few forced final lines and wrapping up the movie. Indeed, the execution of the concluding moments was a real mess.
To say that I didn’t enjoy it in some capacity would be a lie. Sang-ho has created one heck of a bombastic action flick. It’s dumb fun. Flash gore? Done. However, it’s a damn shame that whatever conceptual goodwill it had during the first half fizzled out during the latter segment, ultimately leading to a dud of a finale. While Train to Busan managed to capture a whole lot of feels, Peninsula sorely misses the mark on that aspect. It just did not stick the landing.
Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is now playing in cinemas nationwide.