When Train to Busan premiered in 2016, it was like lightning in a bottle. It re-animated the zombie genre and brought life into the dying undead. It’s praised as one of the greatest modern zombie horrors, both for its terrifying depictions of the undead and the complex themes that run through it. It’s a remarkable piece of cinema through and through, and its prestige casts an immense shadow over any attempts at a continuation of the story. Four years later, Yeon Sang-ho returns to attempt to perform the impossible – crafting a worthy sequel to one of the most acclaimed horrors of the decade.
While not a direct sequel, Peninsula serves as a continuation of the Train to Busan universe – in the U.S. it was marketed as ‘Train to Busan Presents’, which is a good distinguisher for the uninformed. Four years following the outbreak, Korea has become entirely quarantined, as we fellow refugees Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) and Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) existing within Hong Kong. A crime boss offers them a chance at new life – a dangerous mission into the Peninsula of Korea to retrieve a truck containing a fortune. Both Jung-seok and Chul-min quickly discover there are worse horrors lurking in the shadows of the quarantined zone and are forced to battle not only the undead but the living as well.
Immediately there’s a distinction between Train and Peninsula – where one is claustrophobic, the other is expansive. We’re given a much greater insight into the devastating effect of the virus upon Korea, through news reports and eventually our own journey into the abandoned metropolis; it’s clear that Joo-suk and Sang-ho understand the unique nature of the first, and attempt to reverse-engineer it to provide us with a fascinating companion piece, rather than an attempt at replaying the best beats of the original. In Peninsula, the focus is no longer on understanding the undead, but rather an examination of the living’s response to it. As fear subsides, opportunity grows – the central plot of the heist highlights how inevitably, capitalism will rise to the surface above everything, in the pursuit of individual conquest, even if you have to become walking bulgogi in the process.
The cast of characters introduced is just as endearing and fascinating as you would hope – a particular favorite is the family found hiding within the Pensinula, consisting of Mother Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), and daughters Jooni (Lee Re) and Lee Ye-won (Yu-jin). The daughters and their dynamic are easily the most encapsulating aspect of the film – with it they infuse Peninsula with a bombastic and chaotic energy, devouring the scenery whenever they appear. They are the driving force, in both a literal and metaphorical sense, of the film – and they are one of the best elements that keeps Peninsula fresh and exciting. Unlike many clichéd character archetypes in most zombie horrors, Joo-suk and Sang-ho create original and intelligent characters that defy the typical expectation. The family dynamic is one of the strongest elements of the film, and arguably the strongest characters too – without spoiling their talents, Jooni and Ye-won leave you wishing more children would be at the forefront of a zombie apocalypse. There’s a complex connection between Jung-seok and the family that won’t be divulged here, but one of Peninsula’s best attributes is its ability to entangle questions of fate and morality together whilst entertaining and thrilling you. The philosophical blood of Train still runs through its sister sequel.
Contrasting our beloved family is the ruthless and lawless militia, led by the villainous Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae). From the first second of screen time, we already understand who he is, and his purpose within this wasteland. Joo-suk and Sang-ho waste no time portraying his barbaric attitudes and his lack of morality, as he effortlessly executes one of the heist members through a visceral altercation with a pole. This element of villainous humanity is another through-line of the franchise, albeit much more momentary within the original Train (I’m looking at you, cowardly businessman.), and it brings a new-found level of horror to the world. Boredom is a deadly poison, especially when injected into men with power, and we witness first-hand the depravity of this militia when Chul-min is subjected to a battle royale-esque arena, with an assortment of other participants and zombie creations throwing themselves at one another. This aspect of the world felt more terrifying at points than the undead themselves, due to the impossibility of winning – conquering the undead is one thing, conquering a maliciously bored warlord is another. This is where Peninsula begins to incorporate its newest themes entirely – they’re a Mad Max-esque group of bandits, scavengers, and their vehicles only further emphasize this – with spikes on the wheels, reinforced doors and windows with iron bars and gates, it’s clear that they attempt to rule whatever’s left of this barren wasteland, taking prisoners only to serve as their entertainment.
Peninsula also delivers on some absolutely gorgeous cinematography – there’s a constant battle between light and dark through the use of flares, fireworks, gunshots; there’s a cornucopia of dazzles and shines that will hypnotize you just as it does the undead. Some of the most intense battle sequences are filmed in a brilliantly long take, a particular favourite being the first game within the arena, as water splashes, bodies fly, and the undead sprint and crawl like creatures of the night. Sang-ho works the camera to grant us a further look at this expansive world, from extreme long shots highlighting the paradoxical insignificance and encapsulating view of a singular car moving through this wasteland, or the fluid and volatile movement of the long shots, ducking and weaving through violence as though it were paint splashing upon a canvas. Not only that, but the action sequences are filled with jaw-dropping moments that will leave your heart pounding and your palms dripping with sweat. There’s a pivotal chase scene toward the conclusion that goes on for 15 minutes, and yet constantly builds upon itself and reinvigorates itself, completely immersing you and pushing you to the edge of your seat. It also contains one of the best uses of Chekov’s Gun I’ve seen in a long time. If nothing else, Peninsula provides a veritable feast for the eyes.
Train to Busan and Peninsula is to zombie horror what Alien/Aliens was to the sci-fi horror – both are claustrophobic horrors that followed upon with an incredibly expansive and thrilling sequel, allowing for individuality and new life to be breathed into something many considered impossible to improve upon. There’s a focus on elements other than the horror of the creature, with an emphasis on the horror of humanity’s response to this new threat. While Peninsula’s ending slightly undercuts it through an extremely drawn-out and overly emotional conclusion that perhaps feels a little infected by Americanisation, there’s still a wealth of creative ideas and themes that flow through the sequel that allow to stand as a brilliant companion piece, and by its own right, an individual feature.
Peninsula debuts on digital on the 23rd November and is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from November 30th.