When Yeon Sang-ho wrote “Train to Busan,” zombie movies were simply unheard of among South Korean audiences. Skeptical of the subgenre’s commercial appeal, the director went along with his producers at Next Entertainment World on promoting it as “a survival story of those infected by a human virus of sort.”
“When filming it, I had ideas of other stories in that world, in the post-apocalypse, but I didn’t think I’d have another opportunity to make such a specific genre film, especially not at this scale,” Yeon told Variety.
To Yeon’s surprise, “Train to Busan” was both a critical and commercial success. It grossed $98.5 million, $2.1 million of that from the U.S. and Canada, and became among the first Korean films picked up by VOD and streaming services including Netflix and Shudder. In South Korea, more than 11 million people watched the movie in theaters.
The long-awaited sequel, “Peninsula,” hits U.S. theaters on Friday, following two rescheduled premieres due to the uncertainties in the releasing calendar, caused by coronavirus outbreaks. Written and directed by Yeon, the survival story takes place four years after the zombie apocalypse recounted in the 2016 film. It stars Gang Dong-won, Lee Jung-Hyun, Lee Re, Kwon Hae-hyo and Min-Jae Kim.
Yeon says the film’s Korea release date was merely affected by the pandemic. Finishing production last October, his team had anyway planned on a worldwide premiere in July, exactly four years after “Train’s” release. “We skipped European and North American countries that were having worse outbreaks, but even in Asian countries that are slowly recovering, we figured their film market, their theaters needed new movies to come out right now,” he explained.
“Peninsula” has been doing strong business in overseas territories, grossing over $50 million before hitting U.S. theaters. Released in Canada on Aug. 7, the film earned over $273,000 from 48 theaters. In Taiwan, the sequel has amassed over $11.9 million to date, while in Malaysia it topped the box office and ran on to $2.30 million. . It also became the top opening Korean film of all time in Singapore, overtaking Yeon’s record from “Train” and currently stands at $2.03 million.
The cartoonist-turned-director accounts “Peninsula’s” international success to the name recognition of its predecessor and the lack of new titles from Hollywood. He believes returning audiences were not only drawn to his active, fast-moving zombies but the “emotional thread, looking at parenthood and community morale in the post-apocalypse.”
Gang, who stars as Jung Seok, a survivor of the previous “Train” wreck who returns to South Korea to retrieve a cash hoard, points to the car chase scene composed with CGI graphics. The sequence was shot in front of the green screen, and the zombies, edited in afterwards. “It’s insane how real and good everything looks, and Yeon’s edits, with his background in animation, made it even more surreal — and I don’t think audiences have seen anything quite like it,” he said.
In lieu of the usual red carpet premieres, promotion for the sequel has consisted of phone interviews and local theater tours, a common event among Korean cinemas inviting a film’s cast and crew to introduce their work in-person. Due to South Korea’s two-week mandatory quarantine upon re-entry, the team has cancelled press conferences and screenings abroad, even in places like Taiwan that seem to have the virus under control.
The award-winning Korean actor is especially fascinated by the film’s success in Southeast Asia, especially considering the pandemic’s impact on the Korean box office. On “Peninsula’s” local performance he said, “Our film ranked first [in the box office] for three weeks straight, but we reached just over three million spectators. We’re looking at a large-scale blockbuster with a following, so my guess would’ve been closer to audiences of ten million by now, for any other summer.”
Hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the Korean film industry, which celebrated its centenary with Bong Joon-ho’s history-making Academy Award win, continues to be in an unprecedented turmoil. With mainstream films returning to theaters since June, Yeon hopes to open new doors for other Korean filmmakers.
“Other than in film festivals, Korean films are still rarely loved by foreign audiences. Even with ‘Peninsula,’ we had to reach out to distributors that picked up ‘Train to Busan’,” said Yeon. “The Korean film market is limited, so I hope ‘Peninsula’ paves the way for screening our work in local theaters abroad, the way ‘Parasite’ changed Americans’ perception of foreign films.”
Looking to the future, the filmmaker also confirms the possibility of another entry in the “Train” franchise. “Given the opportunity, I have a few storylines that take place after ‘Peninsula,’ but I’m debating whether (they are) best suited for a TV series, movie or an animated series,” he said. “Whether or not I’ll be directing it is another question.”
But before his next project, Yeon is curious to see how “Peninsula” performs at the U.S. box office, especially under pandemic circumstances. “So I heard Americans know ‘Train to Busan’ from Netflix, but I can’t fathom its popularity because I’ve mostly stayed in Korea,” he said. “‘Peninsula’ is another Korean movie, but it’s an action movie — and regardless of race of language, I believe there’s something for everyone to enjoy.”