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‘Train to Busan: Peninsula’ Caters to American Audiences, Even as It Condemns Them

The world’s eyes are on Yeon Sang-ho

Barreling onto the scene like, well, a runaway train, South Korean writer/director Yeon Sang-ho seized the world’s attention in 2016 with the one-two punch of Train to Busan and its animated prequel, Seoul Station. His savage spin on the zombie sub-genre awed audiences and critics alike, and with the release of Train to Busan: Peninsula (or just Peninsula to the savvy), the world’s eyes are on Yeon. Yet his focus seems to be on the U.S., as his third installment leans in to Hollywood expectations.

Set four years after the events of the first two films, Train to Busan: Peninsula follows their formula by offering up a new batch of survivors and a freshly frightening journey. A band of South Korean refugees scraping by in the criminal underbelly of Hong Kong takes on a deadly mission: They must travel quietly into the abandoned peninsula and recover $20 million left behind in a heist gone wrong. Along the way, this motley crew face not only heaping hordes of zombies, but also a scrappy family of survivors and a militaristic gang that has made this hellscape their domain. 

Where the previous films centered on unlikely heroes (a workaholic businessman and his idealistic daughter; a struggling sex worker and her manipulative pimp), Peninsula offers a much more standard protagonist for such an action-promising premise. Gang Dong-won stars as Jung-seok, a former soldier who carries with him battle expertise, dark regrets and a gnawing desire for redemption. Hollywood churned out this archetype in bunches of action movies in the 1980s and 1990s, the kind fronted by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and the like. Like these action icons, Gang scowls coldly while facing down impossible odds but reveals his soft side through a blossoming bond with a female character (or three: mother and daughters played by Lee Jung-hyun, Lee Re and Lee Ye-won.) And of course, he mercilessly sprays barrage upon barrage of bullets into his enemies, both living and undead.

With a premise reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, Yeon and co-writer Park Joo-Suk make the ruins of a South Korean metropolis into a playground for American action-movie tropes and allusions. Guns play a much bigger role in this sequel than the previous films, where humans mostly battled back with found objects like baseball bats. There are a slew of shootouts in Peninsula. Some take place during high-octane car chases that seem inspired by the narrow escapes of The Bourne Identity, the eye-popping drifts of The Fast And The Furious franchise and the over-the-top vehicle battles of Mad Max: Fury Road.

With creepy contortions and superbly unnerving performances, Peninsula offers some practical effects scares that fans have come to expect from Yeon’s zombies. Yet he follows the Hollywood mandate of “horror sequels = more, more, more.” So, he spews legions of CGI zombies onscreen, giving us gore galore as they’re shot down in a blaze of gunfire, mowed down by racing dystopian rides or burst forth in a tangled mess of rotting flesh that makes the urban legend of the Rat King seem tame.

All this excess might sound like sacrilege to those that loved Train to Busan for its lean, yet riveting execution. However, I was impressed and surprised by how Yeon chose to shake up his dystopian world, even if it was through American clichés. You might recognize the references or clock when a snarky teen paraphrases Terminator (“Hop in if you want to live”), but you won’t be bored.

Knowing he has the world’s attention, Yeon rolls out the big guns and bigger stunts to show he can compete with the big boys of Hollywood blockbusters. Peninsula essentially works as a fired flare, signaling to Hollywood that he’s ready for his tent pole. And frankly, studios should be in a mad dash to snatch him up. Yeon has an impeccable skill for pacing, balancing intense moments of action with earnest moments of heartbreak and exaltation. He’s got a wicked sense of humor executed in scares grisly and darkly satisfying. Plus, he’s able to spin narratives that jump locations and loop in a small army of characters, yet never miss a step.

There are other transparent ploys to make the film more accessible to American audiences, too, including a few American characters, the sprinkling of the English language, and jarring Deus ex Machina moment. (It feels better suited to Hollywood Happy Endings than the bleak resolutions this frightening franchise has previously proffered.) Yet, it’d be unfair to say Peninsula means Yeon is selling out, for within his concessions, Yeon seeds criticism.

The first English spoken in the film comes in the talk-show opening, where two white Americans breezily recap the tragedy that befell South Korea. Perched in a safe and cheery studio, their tone is practiced solemnity, gilded with a shallow concern for the horror that’s half a world away. After all, it’s not as if a pandemic like that could rip through the U.S. in such a devastating manner! Surely, American Exceptionalism would prevent that, this expositional intro suggests with sharp sarcasm. 

Next, a mustachioed American soldier will deride the film’s hero, then lead a ship of refugees into harrowing losses. From there, Peninsula picks up in Hong Kong, where a fat, white American gangster doles out the deadly offer that will put South Korean survivors back to the land of the undead. With these bit parts, Yeon succinctly condemns an American culture that clucks with feigned concern, bullies for hero roles and uses the promise of a big payday to sucker dreamers into destructive paths.

The most damning symbol within Peninsula is, in fact, American money. The $20 million that Jung-seok and his crew set out to recover is in American dollars. At first, it’s a curious detail, but slowly, this monetary McGuffin becomes a cursed object, bringing pain to any who claim it. This money is a ticket out; the gangsters will only provide passage to whoever delivers it. However, proximity to the cash attracts every opportunistic maniac made more savage by the zombie uprising.

All this makes Yeon’s Peninsula much more than a balls-to-the-wall action epic — it’s also captivating for its conflicted plea for Hollywood’s attention. Like his movie’s hero, Yeon has seen a lot and battled for all he has. He yearns for more, the easy street existence that American money promises. Yet even as he reaches for it, he fears it cannot be trusted.

This haunting realization might sneak up on you as the film finishes on a surprisingly upbeat note. So we’re left wondering, can we trust the film’s final moment? Or is Yeon’s sly reversal of the “riding off into the sunset” cliché a warning that the story’s true end lies beyond its credits? 

Take a bite of Peninsula and decide for yourself.

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