South Korean writer/director Yeon Sang-ho staked his claim as a zombie movie auteurist with 2016's massive commercial and critical hit 'Train to Busan'. He found a fresh take on the zombie breakout flick by narrowing and elongating its shape; he constrained most of the action to a single high-speed rail, challenging a band of human survivors to safely pass from car to car.
The end result was a searing commentary that critiqued the South Korean social hierarchy while also delivering the ample blood and guts that horror fans demanded. It became one of the biggest box office successes in South Korean history and led to a wave of imitators that borrowed aspects of its style, including films like 'Rampant', 'The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale', and '#Alive', as well as the Netflix series 'Kingdom'.
Now, with his (relatively) big-budget follow-up 'Peninsula', Sang-ho dispenses with the allegories and goes nuts with his freakiest '80s sci-fi action movie fantasies. His fixation on John Carpenter and George Miller is all too apparent, but Sang-ho's own distinctive cinematic style isn't, making 'Peninsula' a rambling, somewhat likeable but generic shoot-'em-up.
'Peninsula' opens as stoic Marine Captain Jung-seok (a wooden Gang Dong-won, 'Illang: The Wolf Brigade', 'Jeon Woo-chi: The Taoist Wizard') is driving his sister, his brother-in-law, Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) and his nephew Dong-hwan (Moon Woo-jin) to a ship leaving South Korea. The country is being ravaged by the zombie outbreak seen in 'Train to Busan' and its animated prequel, 'Seoul Station'. On the road, he encounters a family with a young child, but he ignores their pleas and drives away. Safety proves elusive when an infected man in the cabin of the ship turns into a zombie and bites numerous people, including Dong-hwan. Jung-seok is forced to leave the child and his mother behind, only managing to save Chul-min.
The film jumps to four years later in contemporary Hong Kong, where Korean refugees are treated as a diseased underclass by the locals. With little to live for in his new country, or (in a comment on migrant crises throughout the world) any assurance of permanent residence, Joen-soek, along with Chul-min and two cannon fodder redshirts, accepts an offer from a shady white guy and some Chinese gangsters to secretly go back to the quarantined peninsula. The objective? To pick up an abandoned food truck which contains bags of cash worth US$20 million. The reward? They get to keep half of anything that is recovered.
It's a straightforward mission but, wouldn't you know it, these intrepid entrepreneurs are soon beset by post-apocalyptic locals whose humanity has been poisoned by survival and are on some 'Thunderdome'-style shit. This lawless, vicious enclave is led by crazy militiaman Sergeant first class Hwang (Kim Min-jae) and the sly Captain Seo (Koo Kyo-hwan). Luckily, Joen-soek has allies in the form of a tough mother (Lee Jung-hyun), her two precocious daughters Joon-i (Lee Re) and Yoo-jin (Lee Ye-won), and an eccentric old soldier Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo).
'Peninsula' has flat characters, the plot is beyond stupid, the action and the gore are plentiful, the actors are always either over- or under acting, and the movie borrows from so many other movies it may as well come with a homage checklist.
As the plot synopsis makes plain, 'Peninsula' plays more like a series of homages than a single, cohesive film. It begins with a nod to John Carpenter's 'Escape From New York', a healthy amount of George A. Romero's 'Land of the Dead' is mixed in, then it's on to militaristic action scenes that aspire to the kineticism of James Cameron's 'Aliens'. Finally, there's a big car chase straight out of 'Mad Max'.
But perhaps the most accurate cinematic reference point is Neil Marshall's over-the-top 'Doomsday', the follow-up to his modern horror classic 'The Descent'. Just like Marshall's 'Doomsday', Sang-ho's 'Peninsula' has flat characters, the plot is beyond stupid, the action and the gore are plentiful, the actors are always either over- or underacting, and the movie borrows from so many other films it may as well come with a homage checklist. It's watchable, mainly because it is so completely ridiculous.
Cheap-looking CGI, slow-motion sequences, hammy orchestral strings, adorable kids with remote control cars, a comedic tone... as a fan of Sang-ho's previous work ('The King of Pigs' and 'The Fake' moreso than 'Psychokinesis'), 'Peninsula' is a baffling disappointment. Gone is the piercing critique of South Korean society infused in 'Seoul Station' and 'Train to Busan'. Gone is the almost loving depiction of his own monsters - the zombies in 'Peninsula' are no longer the wonders of writhing movement and senseless mass that they once were, just mere background noise in a car-chase video game. Gone is any emotional connection to the protagonists, even though 'Peninsula' drags out teary-eyed scenes endlessly for dramatic effect. Don't even get me started on the inclusion of clunky English language dialogue scenes.
Admittedly, Sang-ho's enthusiasm is infectious and, while 'Peninsula' is never as exciting as its source materials, it is kind of fun in an agreeably dumb, unpretentious way. But if Sang-ho wants people to keep stealing from him, he's going to have to stop stealing so blatantly from others.