Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula Review: Zombie Sequel Can't Live Up to Its Predecessor

With 2016’s Train to Busan, director Yeon Sang-ho didn’t reinvent the wheel of the zombie genre, but crafted a heart-wrenching and jet-engine-fueled descent into Hell. That film will no doubt be a classic of the subgenre for years to come, and with such a unique and creative world at their fingertips, it makes sense why a second trip would happen to the overrun Korean peninsula. Enter the “standalone sequel,” clumsily titled in the US "Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula" (just "Peninsula" in other territories), which offers a new tale set in that world but without any of the characters from the first. While Train to Busan played its influences close to the chest, the follow-up gaudily flaunts its inspirations like a parade.

Set four years after the original film, the sequel stumbles almost immediately out of the gate. As a means for catching up the audience on the world and what happened at the time, a pair of truly terrible English-speaking actors dump lazy and flat exposition onto the audience. Thankfully these scenes are cut between moments from the start of the zombie pandemic, but these are so bad they could turn off anyone with only a passing interest. It cannot be overstated how bad these moments are.

Luckily, the film picks up a hair after this sequence, showing how Korean refugees attempt to survive in Hong Kong all while subjected to social and political stigmas. Gang Dong-won is one of four recruited by a local mob boss to return to the overrun Korean peninsula (thus the name) in an attempt to steal a large sum of money left in the streets. It’s a desolate, post-apocalyptic world, after all, so who would miss it? It’s an intriguing set-up for a plot, and, frankly, the major set-piece of the team’s arrival and attempts to locate this cash is some of its best stuff.

From there, the team discovers that the peninsula is not home to just zombies, but factions of people who continue to carry out their day-to-day lives there as well, naturally with some changes. It’s at this point that the film's own interests become clear, as it starts mixing its own stories with attempts to replicate and show inspiration from other, better movies. One sequence feels ripped completely from Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, as someone in a car whips through wrecked city streets and smashes zombies along the way. It would be impressive if it wasn’t clearly an entirely CG creation. There’s also a moment that is a facsimile of the Keanu Reeves-led John Wick, not to mention the larger influence of the entire Mad Max franchise on the film as a whole. These things work to an extent but never feel ingrained enough in the DNA of Peninsula itself to come across as anything but referential motifs.

It’s not all bad, though, as Yeon Sang-ho’s direction continues to inspire in some sequences. One particular moment set in the midst of a zombie gladiator arena in a closed shopping mall is among the better scenes in the film as the camera glides between instances of chaos and gruesome violence in a stunning one-take shot. There’s also the little details of life four years after a zombie apocalypse, like how literally none of the characters that have survived in this Hellscape have good teeth. Why would they? No new toothpaste for years at this point!

A lot of care, craft, and thought clearly went into this entire experience, but too much of it leans on what inspired the director in the development and not enough on his own take on that material. There’s also two major things missing from the first film in this movie. First is the absolutely relentless pacing. Some sequences in Peninsula certainly have that flavor of non-stop movement, action, and character as the original Train to Busan, but overall there are major gaps where the momentum comes to a halt as characters push the plot forward with forced effort. Additionally, the emotional throughline of the plot doesn’t work as well as it did in the first, perhaps in part because there are just so many moving parts in the sequel. The stakes ultimately never feel as dire as the original film.

Fans of Train to Busan will find moments in the sequel that will make their jaws drop or cause them to involuntarily cheer, but overall it doesn’t feel as fresh or interesting as its predecessor. The sequel never finds its footing and is comfortable instead to walk in the shoes of filmmakers and franchises that came before it, all while painting zombies on the margins. Even though the undead have a firm place in the story, this is such a backwards step from the first film that you might think unrelated filmmakers were behind it. The real irony is that Peninsula is clearly a riff on Mad Max, even though Yeon Sang-ho made the closest thing to Fury Road possible with the original Train to Busan.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula hits select theaters August 7th and streaming on Shudder in 2021.