Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (Bando) (2020)

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (Bando) first published by

A virus has leaked out of a bio-factory in South Korea, spreading so rapidly (via the rabid bites of the infected) that the government effectively loses control of the state in a single day. We already know this, because in 2016 director Yeon Sang-ho (here co-writing with Park Joo-suk) released a diptych of films – Train To Busan and the animated Seoul Station – which covered the initial outbreak from two very different angles, and resurrected a Korean interest in zombies which has since spawned Lee Min-jae’s Zombie for Sale (2019), Cho Il-hyung’s #Alive (2020) and the television series Kingdom (2019-). So with Peninsula (Bando), the third film in his own ongoing feature series, the initial outbreak is covered quickly in an American news programme that serves as an oblique recap of the apocalyptic events of the previous two films. Here, as in Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013), it will turn out that the military isolationism of North Korea has managed to keep the virus out, even as South Korea has spiralled quickly into nationwide collapse. In the opening scenes, we see panicky Marine Captain Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) managing to get his sister, nephew and brother-in-law on board one of the last boats to leave the South, only for disaster to strike the young boy and his mother en route. 

Four years later, the guilt-plagued Jung-seok and his surviving brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) are living apart as impoverished refugees in Hong Kong, when they are recruited by a Triad gang to return to Korea and recover an abandoned transport truck filled with millions of dollars in hard American cash. As the two, and a couple of other Korean desperadoes, reenter their homeland which is now blockaded and completely quarantined, they must swiftly acclimatise to a post-apocalyptic regime of survivalist families, rogue militias and of course massive armies of the infected. These last, though blinded by the night, are drawn to noise and light, fast on their feet, hard to kill, and driven by a basic hunger to sink their teeth into anything alive – a compulsive act which also passes on their infection. They are practically braindead, but tend easily to overcome the uninfected through a combination of their speed and vast numbers, not so much running as pouring through the abandoned city’s streets.

Peninsula is not only a zombie film, but self-consciously a zombie film sequel, with key scenes in a shopping mall recalling George A. Romero’s sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978), and the presence of psychopathic soldiers evoking Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985). Soon Jung-seok falls in with Joon (Lee Re), her younger sister Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), their mother Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and grandfather Elder Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo) – a family of scavengers who have managed to stay safe through excellent driving skills, unconventional distraction strategies and a large gun collection. By coincidence, these are the very same people whom, on his way out of Korea four years earlier, the panicking Jung-seok had failed to help, meaning that the damaged ex-soldier finally has an opportunity to save others whom previously he had abandoned, and so to redeem himself.

At this point it is worth observing that director Yeon makes two kinds of films. His animated features – The King of Pigs (2013), The Fake (2013) and Seoul Station – are harrowingly bleak, unremittingly misanthropic and utterly unforgiving of their characters, whereas his live-action films – Train to Busan and Psychokinesis (2018) – respond to the commercial demands of their bigger budgets with generous slatherings of sentiment. Peninsula certainly conforms to this pattern. For while there is, buried in its chase-the-dollars plotting, a critique (self-critique, even) of money-grabbing capitalist pursuits as an empty exercise, there is also a focus on Jung-seok as a man on a journey that is as much cathartically therapeutic as geographical. “You look like a zombie,” Joon tells Jung-seok shortly after meeting him – but in the company of this new substitute ménage, our fallen hero will gradually return to life. Lost to the failures of his past, Jung-seok seeks personal salvation in an emotional triumph of humanity – and of family – against the odds and the undead, as he learns to take risks that come from feelings rather than reason.

All this somewhat mushy mawkishness is offset by some very intense action. Jung-seok’s armed infiltration of a ruined cityscape populated by freaks and fascists relocates John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) to a locked down Incheon, while the rogue Unit 631’s Thunderdome-like gladiatorial games, and the furious vehicular chases through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in pursuit of competing values, are a clear riff on the Mad Max franchise (and certainly live up to its high-octane standards of action). At the same time, the manner in which Yeon incorporates flowing masses of the infected into these scenarios is often surreally ingenious, and goes some way to refresh the most overused monsters of post-millennial horror. Still, maybe it is time for Yeon to leave the zombies in his wake, and to get back to what he does best and most distinctively: unadulterated human misery and despair. Meanwhile, fans of Train to Busan are unlikely to be disappointed by more (of the same) well-executed remixing of other filmmakers’ routines.

Summary: Yeon Sang-ho’s sequel to Train To Busan is more like Boat to Incheon, as a soldier reenters post-apocalyptic Korea seeking hard cash and redemption.

Anton Bitel