In the scene opening Peninsula — the sequel to the zombie classic Train to Busan, retitled in some countries as Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula — Marine Captain Jung-Seok (Gang Dong-won) drives his sister’s family to a safe haven aboard a ship leaving for Hong Kong, as the zombie virus cuts down South Korea’s population with frightening speed.

Navigating through the woods, Jung-Seok notices a crashed car. A woman carrying a small child pleads at their rolled-up window, begging them to at least save her daughter. The little girl is not infected, the woman tells them. Still, Jung-Seok, scared for his sister’s family, drives away. Much later, in a dramatic reveal, we learn that they were one of 31 cars to leave the family stranded.

It was a dark day for humankind, where even good people did reprehensible acts in the name of survival.

The weight of such decisions weigh heavily on Jung-Seok, four years after the outbreak. With no other country infected, the Korean peninsula has been sealed shut by the world. Bridges have been torn down, skyscrapers lie half-destroyed, and vehicles and lifeless bodies float miles into the sea. Governments rarely fly rescue missions into the country, because there are few, if any, survivors left in Korea.

Peninsula, sequel to the excellent Train to Busan, has just one prerogative: kill, survive, and kill some more to survive

Jung-Seok, managing to escape, lives an emotionally scarred, alienated, hand-to-mouth existence in Hong Kong’s slums, where Korean refugees are despised by the locals.

Because this is a movie, fates turn quickly. A local gang-boss forces Jung-Seok and three others to return to Korea to retrieve a truck with 20 million dollars in illegal cash. The split of fifty-fifty would set him up and the others for life, the boss assures him.

Pressured into returning, Jung-Seok is told that the zombies literally become blind at night, so getting the truck, which is somewhere near the docks, should be an easy enough job.

If the job had been that easy, then Peninsula would be a very short movie.

Flares pop up out of nowhere, riling up the undead horde as they swarm Jung-Seok and the others. Humanity — especially the ones with an aggressive, illogical, nutty mindset often seen in South Korean serials and movies — is thriving in the land.

Unit 631, a rogue militaristic faction, rules a cordoned-off area and its members entertain themselves by staging gladiatorial survival matches between famished humans and zombies.

Irrational and irreconcilable, Unit 631 represent humanity’s worst attributes; in the absence of the state, its members have devolved into primal versions of themselves. They’re ugly, messy, unbathed, trigger-happy drunkards with little morality or wisdom.

Jung-Seok, saved by two young girls, Joon and Yu-Jin (Lee Re, Lee Ye-won), their mother Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and an old grandfather-figure (Kwon Hae-hyo), represent the other end of the human spectrum. They’re the token makeshift family, bonded by desperation and emotional scars.

Both Unit 631 and Jung-Seok’s group specify stereotypical necessities of the genre. When developed with the right balance of originality and convention, they elevate films into deeply satisfying pieces of cinema (eg. Train to Busan, Snowpiercer).

In Peninsula, however, these moments of satisfaction are few, silly and half-baked and hardly connect audiences with either set of characters or their plights. For the bulk of the running time, the film seems to have just one prerogative: kill, survive, and kill some more to survive.

Acts of cruelty in times of survival are a fixture of the genre, and very few films deliver these scenes without bookends of action set-pieces. It’s a conventional and successful formula. Scenes connecting the audiences to characters are often slow, deliberate moments that are best appended by bombastic action sequences. Neither is complete without the other. Imagine the action in Terminator 2 without John Connor and T-800’s scenes of bonding. Doesn’t work now, does it?

The screenplay by Park Joo-Suk and Yeon Sang-ho (the latter, also the director), seems aware of the required nature of such moments, but seems strangely wary of adding them at the right intervals. The result is characters we know we should care about… if we had known them better.

Sequels outdoing originals are a rarity — and outclassing Train to Busan is nearly impossible, even if the writer-director is the same. While one cannot compare Peninsula with Train to Busan — a raw, multilayered masterpiece of physical and metaphorical struggles — there are quite a few parallels between this sequel and James Cameron’s Aliens.

Jung-Seok, for example, is more or less a stand-in for Ripley; a hardened sole survivor from a frightening ordeal, causeless, displaced in time, forced by human and moral pressures to return to a land where death is imminent.

Like Aliens, Peninsula is an involving sequel with a string of high-octane action sequences and a handful of interesting characters who, in a worthwhile, over-the-top (in Peninsula’s case, sappy) climax, save the film from being another run-of-the-mill big-budget actioner.

Yeon Sang-ho may not be James Cameron, and there may be a dearth of emotional moments in the film, but at least he has the knack of turning a pedestrian story into a serviceable movie.

Peninsula, unrated in the US, is rated 15 in South Korea (equivalent to a PG-13 rating). The film has no nudity or profanity — just unending gun-fire barrages and speeding vehicles mowing down digital zombies and extra-actors in undead make-up.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 6th, 2020