Korea (2020) Dir. Yeon Sang-ho
In life, people make decisions that have far-reaching effects, not just for themselves, but for others too. However, many of these decisions are made in the heat of the moment where time to weigh up the pros and cons isn’t an option, and they are worse ones we have to live with.
South Korea is overrun by a zombie outbreak and people are desperate to leave the country, among them, marine Captain Han Jung-seok (Gang Dong-Won), driving his elder sister (Jang So-Yeon), her son (Moon Woo-Jin), and her husband Chul-Min (Kim Do-Yoon) to a ship leaving for Hong Kong. Once onboard, an infected passenger runs amok in the cabins and realising they won’t survive, Jung-seok is reluctantly forced to leave his sister and nephew to die.
Four years later, Jung-seok and Chul-Min are part of a group of Korean survivors living in Hong Kong for an American crime boss, claiming a truck with $20 million has been left abandoned in the quarantined peninsula of Incheon. He sends the Koreans to retrieve the truck with the promise half the money will be shared between them, but the mission doesn’t go according to plan, and it is not just zombies they have to worry about.
Peninsula is the sequel-but-not-a-sequel to the Korean zombie mega hit Train To Busan. It’s main connection is that the story takes place four years after the events of Busan and, of course, there are zombies, otherwise this can be viewed a standalone adjunct. It is important to note this going into this film, as it seems many people are expecting to see Busan II and aren’t happy when they don’t get it.
As Yeon Sang-ho is once again writer and director, an argument can be made for this film being the third in a zombie trilogy (along with animated prequel Seoul Station), which is perfectly valid. But like a lot of sequels/follow-ups, the evidence is that the boost in budget and freer rein has led to a detachment of sorts from the original idea and emotional clout, and its box office receipts that are driving this one.
Let me stress now, this doesn’t mean Peninsula is a bad film, it’s just not in the same league style wise as its predecessors. Seoul Station had a real indie vibe to that allowed Yeon to circumvent studio concessions, whilst Busan worked because of the horror being confined to a moving train. Here, we are now in a dystopian, post-outbreak world where lawlessness and self-preservation go hand in hand.
The conceit of the main story is Jung-seok being force to make heartbreaking decisions, whether through panic or resigning to the inevitable. During the drive to the ship at the start of the film, a stricken woman carrying a young child approaches every car pleading for help, but they all, including Jung-seok, ignore her. Given what occurs shortly after on the ship, it is hardly surprising that four years on, Jung-seok torments himself daily for his actions.
During the mission to Incheon, the Koreans find the truck but are ambushed by rogue militia group Unit 631, led by the feral Sgt Hwang (Kim Min-jae). Chul-Min and Jung-seok are separated, with Chul-Min taken to the Unit’s HQ, a converted shopping centre, and forced to be zombie fodder for everyone else’s amusement in a cruel baiting game. A typical uncivilised future world vision, this is no doubt Yeon pondering how far society will decline under martial law in the wake of a zombie outbreak; since this was achieved inside four years, this is quite a pessimistic outlook.
Elsewhere, Jung-seok is rescued by teenage demon driver Joon-Yi (Lee Re) and younger sister Yoo-Jin (Lee Ye-Won), their grandfather (Kwon Hae-Hyo), and their mother Min-Jung (Lee Jung-Hyun) – the woman Jung-seok turned away four years earlier. They plan to steal the truck from Unit 631 and escape, but Captain Seo (Koo Gyo-Hwan), discovers the money and plans to do a runner himself, leaving the unit behind. A three-way battle for the truck ensues, with the zombies still loitering with intent.
It all adds up to an exciting, fast paced, adrenaline rush of car chases – and crashes – gunplay, and numerous zombie corpses being blasted or run over at high speed. The set pieces are spectacular and the stuntmen (when not replaced by CGI) certainly earn their salary, as do the SFX team and the stunt drivers, pulling off some incredible feats for Joon-Yi’s impressive motoring skills – not to mention 14 year-old Lee Re’s handling of the car either.
But what made Train to Busan feel so real was that CGI zombies and effects in general were largely eschewed in favour for actors and more visceral feeling interactions. There is still that here, except the landscape is literally expanded from compact train carriages to the whole of Incheon, thus the claustrophobia and imminent threat is largely diluted since the zombies can be gunned down and run over with ease.
Also compromised is the emotional investment, insofar as the central battle shifts from humans vs. zombies to humans vs. humans vs. zombies, creating a situation in which the audience will root for the zombies against Unit 631. Min-Jung’s story and Jung-seok’s search for redemption is the closest we get to replicating the personal plight from Busan, though the former might have made a more interesting main plot.
Just in case it wasn’t clear that Yeon was going for the Hollywood blockbuster audience here, a recap of the original outbreak is shared via a US talk show segment, whilst the saviours of the day are an American UN task force. It is baffling Yeon is pandering to this market – Busan was enough of an international hit for Hollywood to take notice, though he’s better off staying in Korea.
Prepare yourself for Peninsula by expecting a standard, mega-budget zombie action flick and not Busan II and you should get a kick from it. Bigger may be fun, but isn’t always better…