Poster by Netflix.
Since 2016, Korean zombie films have experienced a great international boom as seen with the recent success of series like Kingdom (Netflix 2019-2020). The popularity for the Korean zombie genre has even created its own specialized industry in Korea: actors train their movement and voice for up to three to four months in a zombie training camp before appearing on screen.
This recent attention to Korean zombie films and TV shows owes much of its popularity to the hit Train to Busan (2016). Train to Busan was so popular that a standalone sequel Peninsula was released in 2020. I will review both films and explore some of the themes expressed in both films.
Photo by Next Entertainment World
Train to Busan / 부산행 (2016)
The O.G. The movie that brought Korean zombie films onto the global stage. Directed by Yeon Sang-Ho, Train to Busan first premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. That year, it became the first Korean film of 2016 to break the record of 10 million theatregoers. For a reasonable budget, small by Hollywood standards, of $8.5 million it would go on to make more than 10 times back (approx. $98.5 million).
For myself and many others, Train to Busan is a well crafted action thriller. The editing in the first section of the film is a masterclass in misdirection and building suspense. When a character opens the door, you feel that they’re entering the space you just saw where danger lurks, but instead they’re just going to the bathroom or down the hall. Instances like this are refreshing and keep you on the edge of your seat.
This film also manages to balance brutal cynicism with hopeful optimism. The film paints a harsh portrayal of how cruel humans can be through the businessman character Yon-suk (played by Kim Eui-sung), the film’s main (living human) antagonist. He serves as a warning to the main character, Seok-woo (played by Gong Yoo), as to what he might become if he continues to live the selfish way he is living. This is balanced in contrast by the multiple characters that fight for the greater good. The burly husband Sang-hwa (played by the equally burly Ma Dong-seok) is a great heroic side character, with his biting humor and selfless nature. He serves as a catalyst that shapes Seok-woo for the better.
There are moments that do make me scratch my head though. When one woman, disgusted by the behavior of the others in her car, dooms them through her actions and also dies in the process, it’s a bit hard to believe and feels forced dramatically. What is engaging though is the main character's arc from a selfish fund manager to that of a loving father. This type of arc has been done before, but the way it is presented, against the backdrop of a zombie outbreak, is incredibly entertaining and creative.
Side note: I rewatched this at a drive-in theatre in San Jose a few months ago that’s located next to a set of railroad tracks. What was surreal/meta was seeing a real train pass by towards the ending of the film.
Peninsula photo by Next Entertainment World
Train to Busan presents: PENINSULA / 반도 (2020)
Peninsula, also directed by Yeon Sang-Ho, was set to premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival same as its predecessor, but was unable due to COVID-19. The film was released in South Korea in July 2020 and opened in the U.S. a month later. For a larger budget of $16 million, the film made $39.7 million, much less than its predecessor. Taking place four years after the events of Train to Busan, Peninsula refers to the Korean peninsula which has now become a wasteland of zombies, rogue soldiers and survivors.
For me, the film struggles with honing in on the underlying motivations of the main character, Jung-Seok (played by Gang Dong-won). Whereas in the first film, it’s clear that the main lead needs to step up as a father in order to keep his child alive, in this film the arc is not so clear nor is it that engaging.
There are flashbacks to a tragic situation that happened on a ship that Jung-Seok was tasked to protect that leaves him with survivors guilt. From there, the emotional need to move on or to be a better person is not strongly felt. Those don’t necessarily have to be the only motivations, but his actions should be informed in some emotional way and it’s not clearly felt in the film.
The antagonists in the film also seem a bit cartoonish and dull. As is common for many zombie films and shows, the real enemy is not the zombies, but other humans. That’s because other humans are not mindless like the zombies: they can strategize, manipulate, and hurt others in ways that go beyond physical danger. In this respect, I felt the antagonists were lacking in this film.
Another aspect that could’ve been improved was that when certain characters die, I don't feel nearly as much empathy and loss as I did in the first film. In Train to Busan, characters were given their moments to shine and emotionally connect with others. In this way, their loss was felt much more deeply.
The film is not all bad: there are some moments that are so ridiculous that it makes the film fun. The film has hints of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Fast and the Furious franchise that gives it energy, but in the process I feel it loses some of the heart of the original. The ending I felt was fairly strong in that it goes against certain tropes that zombie films establish (though the main lead taking his time to have a calm chat to the one of the daughters, given the circumstances, was infuriating).
TLDR: Train to Busan 2 becomes too fast, too furious, too mad, and too bad the road they took is not as good as the original. That said, it can be entertaining for those looking for a fun, zombie film.