Disclaimer: In normal circumstances, we would be going to see this film in the safety of the theaters, popcorn in hand, and screams ready to unleash. However, these are not normal times. However, you end up seeing PENINSULA, we wish you the safest viewing experience. Even if it means waiting until it comes out on Shudder next year for you to stream in your homes.
Survivor’s guilt – the ones you leave behind.
“Drop that logical bullshit. Did you even try?”
Full disclosure: Train To Busan is, in my opinion, one of the best zombie movies ever made. PENINSULA is therefore one of my most anticipated movies of the year, but I am aware that the movie has to be viewed as a separate statement and act of creation from the film that I loved so much. If anything, I was ready to be more critical of it, because I loved Train that much. So yes, I’m holding them to a high standard. Train To Busan came out of nowhere, but PENINSULA comes weighted with expectation.
Zombie movies and TV shows are extremely popular even now or especially now given the situation that we are currently in. While zombie movies are at their core horror movies, they also have strong elements of other genres. It’s always been my belief that while some zombie movies are straight apocalyptic horror, there’s always a strong element of the action film involved in any zombie flick, specifically war films. You know, the single soldier trapped behind enemy lines or the small troop defending their current location against an overwhelming force. Basically, the heroes run around shooting other humans so that they don’t end up dead. Or, in this case, undead. PENINSULA delivers on the action, but in a different way that Train To Busan. In other words, it’s car chase time. If you want entertainment, PENINSULA’s got it, tension, gunfights, screaming zombie hordes, and that slam-bang car chase. It made me want to get out on the road and figure out the precision driving move of using the e-brake.
I feel that PENINSULA has succeeded in the difficult task of following up on a highly successful and beloved film. The first movie – the animated Seoul Station, has a strong political viewpoint and includes criticism of the government and its agencies. Train to Busan has strong thematic elements about the structure of the modern family and the burden and rewards of parental responsibility, particularly that of fathers who are expected to be protectors and providers. It is about human beings’ responsibility to other individual humans and body politic. The fight between fear and selfishness and cowardice and heroism. It says that we are all, in essence, family. That doing the right thing or the brave thing makes us stronger with every life saved. It’s encapsulated in this line of dialogue: “Why did you? We could have saved them.”
Director and co-writer Yeon Sang-ho has expanded these thematic elements in PENINSULA. Unlike most zombie movies, this isn’t yet another retread of the ZA origin story. There are people escaping from South Korea aka the PENINSULA after the outbreak is a fait accompli. There’s even a talk show segment, obviously meant to be from the United States, letting everyone know that South Korea has been totally abandoned, although North Korea is fine. I had to allow myself a bit of a grim chuckle from this statement especially coming from a South Korean filmmaker. The relationship between the two Koreas, or lack thereof, should be more well known than it is to Americans, but basically North Korea is a highly secretive and belligerent Communist dictatorship where we truly don’t know what is going on inside of the country. While South Korea’s leadership and government are not perfect, it’s a paradise compared to the capricious cruelties of North Korea. In the book, World War Z, there is a particularly haunting chapter on North Korea that surmises that perhaps the people of North Korea are safely under the thumb of their Benevolent Leader in their underground tunnels or perhaps there’s a raging horde of starving zombies there just waiting to be let out. The segment wisely leaves that question unanswered.
While fleeing in the panic of the outbreak, a soldier leading a family group in a car ignores the pleas of another family group begging for help. It seems like the right decision, but is it?
Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) and his brother in law, Cheol-min (Kim Do-yoon) escape to Hong Kong, but not without paying a heavy price. While they are alive, in a way, they aren’t really living. The grief and guilt are too much. When a local gangster offers them the chance to make millions by retrieving a truck from South Korea, they decide to try it, because what do they really have to lose? There’s also the additional layer of threat that the offer isn’t really something that they can turn down.
Because of the legacy of George Romero’s most famous films and the historically based writing of Max Brooks in World War Z, the rules of the Zombie Apocalypse have been codified into specific guiding principles, especially in the ZA Universe of “The Walking Dead”. One of those principles is that human beings are much more dangerous than zombies. The Zombie Virus, whatever it’s origin, is a mindless infection seeking only to perpetuate itself. It doesn’t have human qualities of hatred or greed. To give a current example: COVID 19 is a highly communicable disease that causes death, long term organ damage, and can make you extremely ill for months. You might survive the infection, but you could give it to family and friends who won’t. COVID 19 isn’t evil; it’s a virus that follows its programming: infection to replicate itself and continue to exist. What is evil? A government that refuses to protect its people to save the economy? That ignores the pleas of medical personnel in need of PPE? That literally doesn’t do anything and refuses to take even the bare minimum of steps necessary to halt the infection? People who refuse to wear masks and who are in denial of the truth? To me, most of the time, it feels like we’re living in the Zombie Apocalypse right now.
What a lot of zombie movies and series get wrong is that while they insist that their show or movie is about the human spirit or has social relevance, it’s really more concerned with ratings or show-stopping finales with gruesome deaths. They claim that their work is in the spirit of Romero or even adapt Brooks’ novel, but fail to imbue that work with the spirit of humanity, good, amoral, and evil, in favor of looking cool. One of the things that I have always said about Train To Busan, while singing its praises, is that it is the adaptation of World War Z that we actually deserved. PENINSULA flips the script of the previous film, while Train starts in darkness and advances to a brightly lit nightmare, PENINSULA starts in the light and evolves into a dark and pitiless world. It returns to the setting of the first film, Seoul Station, bringing the story full circle as the main action takes place in the Mok-dong suburb of Seoul, near the Incheon Port. PENINSULA is lit mainly in warm yellows and vivid blues and greens, which has an ever-present darkness flitting around the edges. The cinematography is by Lee Hyung-deok, who was also the cinematographer for Train To Busan. The darkness becomes a plot device as it is not something to be feared, but an ally for those who know how to use it. This is a significant break with the rules established by Night of the Living Dead.
Obviously, there was an attempt to make the film a bigger spectacle than the previous film and, for me, it works. Instead of the normal mistake of making the zombies the focus and going for more gore effects and complex appliances, the focus of the zombies’ presence remains in the performance. The painful arching of the body before a subject turns and the rage and instantaneous attacks are what makes these zombies the danger that they are. Again, the focus is on the presence and performance of the actors playing the zombies rather than trying to make them the main characters and make them terrifying through make-up. Performance > HEY LOOK AT THIS GROSS LOOKING ZOMBIE. The scene where a wall is revealed, through night vision goggles, to be a container of a horde is a truly unsettling moment. The action sequences come into play as fight scenes against zombies and other humans and a game where unarmed humans are made to face a small horde of zombies in a make-shift arena. It’s essentially a cruel time filling exercise for the militia of Unit 631 called ‘hide and seek”.
Like many film arenas, it’s stacked against the “players”, who have the numbers of sports team members spray-painted on their naked torsos. I have seen this scenario before, most obviously in Romero’s Land Of The Dead, which PENINSULA does share some cinematic territory with. But I have to ask you, do you think that after what you’ve witnessed in the last eight months, that there aren’t some sick bastards out there who wouldn’t do something like this if they had that kind of power and were bored? You know someone like Logan Paul would be the first to do it for views on YouTube. There’s always been an air of sleaziness and theatricality in these scenarios to me while watching films like Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome or Land Of The Dead that I found somewhat unbelievable. No more. I can fully accept that something like this would probably happen, sooner or later during the ZA.
There is quite a bit of mirroring of situations and characters in PENINSULA that comes in twos or threes. The choice given to the soldier, Jung-seok, on the road, on the lower deck, and in the finale of choosing to save someone or not. The soldiers Mr. Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Sgt. Hwang (Kim Min-jae) and Capt. Seo (Koo Gyo-hwan), three soldiers – all driven mad by the situation, but whose character is revealed in their actions and their dedication to love or selfishness. The mothers: Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and Jung-seok’s unnamed older sister (Jang So-yeon) and their ability to cope with the situation and to choose to act or remain paralyzed.
In my opinion, Yeon Sang-ho and his films are more worthy of the legacy of Romero than any other filmmaker working in this particular sub-genre. It’s not just the similarity of certain plot devices, which are tropes by this point in history, but that the emphasis of story and action is always on the human heart and character and the individual’s response to a disaster. Along with his co-screenwriter, Park Joo-Suk, who also co-wrote Train To Busan, there are always questions about each character and the choices they make and the consequences of those choices. I think that there is a preference in audiences who enjoy zombie films to watch the spectacle of the collapse of society. If you look at most zombie films, like superhero films, they tend to be origin stories because the form seems to be largely stuck in that mode of telling that particular story. Seriously, how many times have you seen Bruce Wayne’s parents get murdered? Sustaining a zombie story over several films has repeatedly led to a failure of imagination with many filmmakers, but like any story, you have to make a film that is about something. Or you don’t and that is obvious on the screen.
I seem to sense that the general critical opinion is that PENINSULA is not as good as Train To Busan. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually read any of them yet. That is the danger of having a film that is too successful and critically praised, you are likely going to get scorched on the next film no matter what. I would answer in this way, is PENINSULA as groundbreakingly good as Train To Busan? No, what could be? It was a zeitgeist, especially through word of mouth on social media. I personally convinced a lot of people to watch it. Was Dawn Of The Dead exactly the same cultural tornado that Night Of The Living Dead was? No, Romero famously drove the NOLTD print to New York while listening to radio reports of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Because of the timing and the casting of the lead character of Ben, there was a frisson that is cannot be replicated with an audience. By the way, both films were critically panned for gore and violence and only slowly received a critical reappraisal over time. Just like a lot of movies that we consider classics of horror today.
PENINSULA is about survivor’s guilt and dealing with the consequences of making a decision that gets someone else killed. Like Train To Busan, it’s also about sacrifice, for your loved ones, and for the greater good. But, unlike a lot of zombie entertainment these days, and yes, I am calling out the “The Walking Dead” Universe specifically on this, it advances the idea that always cutting your losses and leaving people to die is not the best solution. The guilt comes from questioning whether you are deserving of life when it is taken from others and when, deep down, you’re not sure that you did enough. Of course, there’s always a time when you have truly done all that you could and the film brings the characters to the point where they can accept loss and realize that grief need not include guilt for not doing enough when you truly have done all that you can. It also examines the paralysis of shock and how it affects you when you are emotionally involved. In both instances, when a character is frozen and unable to move in a crisis situation, it is not because they are cowards or scared, it’s because the emotional trauma of a loss and denial of that pain that causes them to be rooted on the spot. I’ve heard that some people don’t consider this film as emotional as the first and I disagree.
I ended PENINSULA in the same emotional place as Train To Busan, freely weeping tears. They were different tears and I still feel them close to the surface as I write this review. Even in the back of my head, I feel the nagging voice of, “are you sure it’s that good?” I can only go by my emotions. It’s not hard to make me cry, but the price of admission for a film is that there has to be something real for me to be emotional about. Give me a story without complex emotional characterization or bad acting or the death of a character that the script and acting hasn’t made me care about and I am unmoved. I’ve watched Resident Evil any number of times and I’ve never cried for any of those characters. No, not even Rain. Without the connection and the emotional work of the actors, it’s not happening. I can see the attempts at emotional manipulation and appreciate the craftsmanship, but say no go.
I can definitely criticize certain things about the performances. Overall, there was a reliance on the overused acting crutch of crazy and evil people laughing to indicate that they are crazy and/or evil. However, that happens frequently in American entertainment and I don’t really see many people complaining about that. It wasn’t overused either. As in Train To Busan the child actors, Jooni (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won) are excellent, when they cry tears, it destroys me. That’s because they actually cry. Jung-seok and Cheol-min have faces bruised with guilt. Min-jung and Jung-Seok’s nameless sister bear the weight of grief and hopelessness in their expressions and voices. The soldiers of Unit 631, like Sgt Hwang and Captain Seo, have empty faces of despair, one passive and one belligerent, not caring about life beyond the next glass of alcohol or the next cruel death of an innocent.
There are so many indications of this emotional world-building when Jooni is asked why she saved Jung-seok when she didn’t have to, she responds, “Our father told us to protect the weak, before he went to Heaven and you looked weak.” The look on Jung-seok’s face when he realizes how good of a man their father was and how badly he let them down, especially as a soldier whose job is to protect people. The child and her father are more worthy of the title of soldier than he is. They have honor and he has disgraced himself. He was wrong. I’m sure that it is no accident that the actor cast as the father has a close resemblance (his body type) to that beloved father in Train To Busan, Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) who was the hero who taught the more timid and selfish father Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) to fight and be strong and ultimately sacrificed himself.
PENINSULA is an exciting and emotionally honest zombie film. It is a worthy successor to the rightly venerated Train To Busan. It is a celebration of all the good things in human beings and the importance of human lives. It is a lesson about how we can learn to be better and that human beings really aren’t wolves, not if they choose to be human.
Not if they choose to be brave.
PENINSULA debuts in North American theaters today. Shudder will premiere the film on its subscription platform in early 2021.