Can a zombie movie make you cry? Yes, if it’s been directed by Yeon Sang-ho. The South Korean director uses zombies as they have traditionally been used – as a tool for social criticism and a metaphor for the human condition. But he also layers in family dynamics, with the definition of family being expanded beyond the traditional. Yeon isn’t afraid of high emotion and sentiment. At the end of his 2016 cult classic Train to Busan, I found myself wiping tears. His latest Peninsula also yanks your heartstrings though this film doesn’t achieve the sublime blend of horror, humor and drama that the earlier one did.
Yeon’s most formidable weapon is children. Both films feature young girls in pivotal roles. In Peninsula, it’s the teenager Jooni and the younger Yu-Jin, who combines tough with cute and is the Korean equivalent of Munni in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. It’s difficult to watch her tear up. Peninsula isn’t a direct sequel to Train to Busan. None of the characters who survived that film return here. This story is set four years after the first film, in which a mysterious virus infected people and turned them into zombies. Peninsula is a post-apocalyptic film – South Korea is now a failed state, overrun by zombies and cut off from the rest of the world. Captain Jung-seok and three other people are sent by gangsters behind the quarantine lines to retrieve millions of dollars in cash. When one character glibly declares, this is a piece of cake, you know the mission is going to go horribly wrong. The set-up is reminiscent of Escape from New York. Peninsula also features Mad Max-style action. And some of the set-piece car chases seem straight out of Fast and Furious.
Train to Busan, which was mostly set on a bullet train overtaken by zombies, had a claustrophobic tension. We took an emotional and literal journey with the characters. Peninsula never hits those high notes. But the film has some inspired sequences – my favorite was Yu-Jin using her remote-control toy car to distract the zombies. There’s also a gladiator style face-off with zombies in an arena. These undead creatures – manic, ravenous, unpredictable – are fun to watch. But of course, they aren’t the real villains here. That spot is reserved for human beings who despite the horrors unleashed on the world continue to be selfish, greedy and brutal.
I got fixated on the bad teeth of the bad guys – Sergeant Hwang and Captain Seo. In one scene, Seo is drinking Johnny Walker whiskey. If that was available, surely there must be some toothpaste somewhere! But you don’t ask these questions in a zombie movie. You are here for the ride, not for the logic.
Peninsula relies too much on CGI so in places, the film feels a little like a video game. But there’s enough blunt and banging action here to make it worth your time. Also, could there be a better moment to watch a film about a virus that upends the world.
You can see Peninsula in theaters. Wear a mask and be safe.