PENINSULA Interview: Director Yeon Sang-ho Talks Zombies in the Age of Coronavirus

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PENINSULA Interview: Director Yeon Sang-ho Talks Zombies in the Age of Coronavirus
Eight years ago, I met an artist blazing new trails in Korean cinema.  Disturbing and dark as pitch, director Yeon Sang-ho’s The King of Pigs {2011} was a decidedly un-family-friendly animated feature that glared unblinkingly at the ills of South Korean society through the eyes of three bullied kids.  His next animated film, The Fake {2013}, tackled organised religion. 
 
Yeon’s first live-action feature, Train to Busan {2016}, would simultaneously initiate the zombie genre in South Korea, while keeping his social consciousness present.  The film broke records in South Korea, and became hugely popular around the world, even without a wide mainstream release. 
 
Peninsula is the follow up to that blockbuster.  Director Yeon was kind enough to send LMD some thoughts about continuing his hit saga, and releasing this film in this age of coronavirus. 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  What were some of the challenges making PENINSULA after TRAIN TO BUSAN?  Now that we’ve met the zombies and gotten a general idea of the world, some of the shock and surprise is gone.  What was different in creating new scares for the audience?
 
Yeon Sang-ho:  Because Train to Busan was a high-concept movie, I debated whether the sequel should be made with the same original concept, or created with a completely new one.  As a creator, I wanted to create a new genre for the film.
 
Compared to Train to BusanPeninsula has a very different texture to the movie. 
 
In addition to more action scenes, there is more focus on the fear of the survivors who have lived in this environment, and the savages they have become rather than the fear of being infected by the zombies.
 
If Train to Busan is considered a story of isolation on a narrow train, then Peninsula is also a story of isolation.  However, it is not only isolation from the enemy, but also isolation from hope that no longer exists.
 
LMD:  What was it about Mr. Gang Dong-won that made him right to play Jung-seok?  I found it interesting that he doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, and, as opposed to Gong Yoo in the previous film, doesn’t go in with something as precious to him as his own child to protect.  What were the aspects of the Jung-seok character you wrote that fit Mr. Gang?
 
YSh:  Gang Dong-won is an actor who is capable of portraying very strong emotions and a variety of facial expressions.  And, he is an actor who is able to put that performance into action scenes. 
 
That is why each of the action sequences performed by Gang Dong-won is beautifully rich with emotions.
 
It was very difficult to think of another actor who could accurately portray the full depth of emptiness felt by the character, Jung-seok.
 
LMD:  After interviewing him during the New York Asian Film Festival, I know that Mr. Gang really enjoys projects that give him a physical challenge.  He does a lot of gun shooting in PENINSULA, but he’s also not Superman, or some invincible force as we’ve seen him play in previous films.  Please talk about the training you prescribed for Mr. Gang, and how you collaborated on balancing the action aspect with the vulnerability we see in Jung-seok?
 
YSh:  The Martial Arts Director continually showed the action sequences to Mr. Gang Dong-won through choreographed video and was able to convey the vision for the action for Peninsula.  Because Mr. Gang had more experience with action scenes in previous movies than anyone else, he didn’t require additional training.  During the pre-production phase, he persistently researched the emotions of the character Jung-seok and worked diligently to combine those emotions into action.
 
The first scene we shot with Actor Gang Dong-won in Peninsula was the action scene where he broke into Unit 631.  Even though his first scene was an action sequence, he was able to portray an abundance of emotion because he was already immersed deeply into the Jung-seok character.
 
LMD:  For me, one of the most exciting things about PENINSULA is your female cast.  It is very rare in any action movie to see women at the forefront; even more so in Korean films.  Yet, it feels very organic to meet Min-jung and her two daughters surviving well in their crazy world.  Add to that the casual way you defied gender roles by giving each of the women specialties that are more typically perceived as male:  Min-jung has her guns, Joon-yi has amazing driving skills, the member of Jung-seok’s team who was a taxi driver, and of course little Yu-jin, who is an ace RC car driver.  
 
Was putting women in nontraditional roles at the forefront an important goal for you in this film?
 
YSh:  The main concept of the movie was a mother trying to raise her children in a city that is in ruins, with two children who have to live every day in the ruined city.  The idea of children driving in a zombie-filled apocalyptic world was fresh and interesting.
 
LMD:  Was there more story than we see in the final cut?  Maybe it was the translation, but there were things I missed with the ladies’ story:  Was Joon-yi adopted by Min-jung?  Also, I didn’t understand what exactly happened that forced them to run away from Unit 631?  Min-jung only says “They went crazy.”  I noticed there don’t seem to be any women in the Unit.  
 
I wondered if the specific reason was kept purposely vague, or if scenes were cut?  I wanted to know everything about them.
 
YSh:  We showed through their conversations that Min-jung’s family used to live with Unit 631 when they were soldiers who rescued citizens, before they became barbaric.  And, Joon-yi and Min-jung are not related to each other.  However, I didn’t feel the need to explain that in detail.  Rather than highlighting whether or not they were related, I thought showing whether or not they loved each other as a family was much more important.
 
LMD:  We weren’t able to speak for TRAIN TO BUSAN or PSYCHOKINESIS, which had impressive casts.  Please tell me about your mode of direction when you’re working with wonderful veteran actors like Mr. Gang, or Ms. Lee Jung-hyun, whose portrayal of Min-jung is amazing.  Do you have a very set vision of what you want them to do, or are you more collaborative, and allowing them to add things to their characters that weren’t there before?
 
YSh:  In every scene, Actor Lee Jung-hyun showed me the image of acting I envisioned perfectly.  I felt she was able to deliver everything I wanted, down to how she breathed.
 
Actor Gang Dong-won always consulted with me on his interpretation of the scenes. Because of Actor Gang’s ideas, many of the scenes were enriched. Whether it was Jong-suk’s dream with his sister or the last scene where Min-jung got on the truck and honked the horn; these were all Actor Kang’s idea.
 
Working with actors who have different tendencies was very enjoyable and the end result was the actors who were part of Peninsula had a common goal to make the movie a rich and enjoyable film.
 
LMD:  Anyone who’s seen TRAIN TO BUSAN could not help but be moved by Kim Su-an’s performance as Gong Yoo’s daughter.  PENINSULA’s Misses Lee Re and Lee Ye-won are 14 and 9 years old, respectively, yet they steal the show.  Is there a difference in how you direct younger and older actors, or veterans versus newcomers?  How do you bring out these incredible juvenile performances?
 
YSh:  The actors of Peninsula all had their own way of acting.  Each had their unique way of interpreting or acting out the scene.  I worked hard as a director to speak to them in a way each of them could understand.  I don’t believe the difference is in their age or experience.
 
Let’s take for instance Actor Lee Ye-won, who has an abundance of emotion and was able to modify her acting based on each of my directions; while Actor Lee Re thought similarly as an adult actor.  Even though Actor Lee Re is very rational, she is an actress with an abundance of emotions.
 
LMD:  Talk about creating the space for these actors to work together: We have to believe the characters are willing to place their lives in each other’s hands.  Are you a director who likes for his cast to bond and get to know each other well and collaborate together?  Outside of table readings and rehearsals, did you want the cast to get together to become more comfortable for this film?
 
YSh:  Of course, whether it is on set or not, I want the actors to respect and get along with each other.  That is true not just for the actors, but also for the staff.  However, I don’t believe that has an influence on the filming.  The actors in Peninsula are all professional and I believe they will try their best.
 
I believe the greatest bond comes naturally when everyone does their best while filming.
 
LMD:  Watching PENINSULA in New York City as we are heading toward our sixth month dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, there is a lot in this film that gave me extra shivers.  Obviously, this movie, and your whole idea for these infectious zombies, was made long before the world knew about COVID-19, yet some of PENINSULA’s exposition about the virus and its effects are uncomfortably close to home.
 
Did releasing the film as South Korea is in careful recovery from the virus, and other countries around the world slowly coming back, but while we in the US are unfortunately still in the depths of it, add any sort of extra pressure or different perspective for you?
 
YSh:  Peninsula is a movie that started out exploring the identity of the theatre.  To me, going to the theatre is a fun outing experience.  I think Peninsula is a movie that is best experienced in a theatre with many viewers to gain synergy.
 
In our current state, with COVID-19 where it is the worst situation for theaters, I think it was a good idea to release Peninsula.  The theme of Peninsula is the hope that can be found in the midst of isolation and frustration.  I think the story that Peninsula is trying to tell is very pertinent to our current situation.  It is very rare when movies can mimic present reality.
 
LMD:  I felt like PENINSULA had some homages to great action movies and perhaps some anime:  For example, there’s that great moment where Joon-yi meets Jung-seok and rephrases the classic line “Come with me if you want to live,” from THE TERMINATOR.  A lot of the dystopian Korea, particularly the car chases, reminded me a lot of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.  And this may be a reach, but I feel like as an animator, you might know the anime called TOKYO GHOUL, which pitted supernatural flesh eaters against helpless humans in an arena for entertainment.  
 
Did you have other films in your mind’s eye as you created PENINSULA?
 
YSh:  From a young age, I was influenced by Hollywood’s movies from the 90s, such as The Terminator and Robocop.  While making Peninsula , I wanted to create the same vibe as a Hollywood movie from the 90s. 
 
Also, movies I saw when I was younger, like Mad Max 2 {The Road Warrior}, helped me find the joy in post-apocalyptic movies.  I think these things naturally influenced the movie.
 
I received a lot of inspiration from the comic Akira – where after Akira triggers the second explosion that caused a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo; an outside commando infiltrates the land and finds survivors.
 
LMD:  As I watched the film, there were certain sequences that I would love to see animated, or drawn in a graphic novel.  Do you first envision the way your live action films are going to look as drawings?  Are there plans to make these films going forward into graphic novels, or animation?
 
YSh:  The starting concept of some movies starts with an image.  Originally, when I was in college, I majored in oil painting, and have worked in animation for a long time, so it is common for me to start a story with an image. 
 
The genre I love as much as movies is comics/animation.  In order to expand the world in Peninsula, we are also considering creating a prequel to Peninsula in comic form.
 
LMD:  I had the great pleasure to meet Ms. Shim Eun-kyung last year during the JAPAN CUTS film festival: Ms. Shim was a voice actor in SEOUL STATION, the animated prequel to TRAIN TO BUSAN, who makes a pivotal cameo in that film.  With that connection in mind, I strained my eyes trying to see whether there were any Easter eggs, or secret references hidden in PENINSULA.  I would have been thrilled and horrified for a quick glimpse of zombie Gong Yoo or Ma Dong-seok somewhere on the screen.  Is that something sharp-eyed viewers might be able to find?
 
YSh:  There are no special hidden Easter egg scenes.
 
LMD:  Having rewatched SEOUL STATION after seeing PENINSULA, I realised there were aspects of the zombies that had changed: For one, in TRAIN TO BUSAN and PENINSULA, it’s a big plot point that zombies can’t see in the dark, but in SEOUL STATION, they do attack at night.  In SEOUL STATION, there is more emphasis on the zombies eating their prey, less in TRAIN TO BUSAN, and in PENINSULA, it seems like they mostly want to just hurry and infect the next host with a quick bite.  
 
Have the zombies evolved as you’ve written them?
 
YSh:  Seoul Station is a movie with a strong personality that deals with zombies as an allegory for those who are socially disenfranchised.
 
In contrast, Train to Busan and Peninsula are movies that emphasize the enjoyment of the genre.  With Train to Busan, the genre characteristic I created was the zombies were not able to see in the dark, and this carried over to Peninsula.  As a result, most of the actions of the main character occurs at night.
 
As I decided on the post-apocalyptic genre, I created an upended world where people who would normally move around during the day become nocturnal.
 
LMD:  You’ve stated that PENINSULA isn’t a sequel to TRAIN TO BUSAN, but another story in the universe.  As you consider going on with this universe, what are the determining factors that would make you want to place a story in this world?  Jung-seok has trauma in his past, but also has the military training that makes it possible to complete the quest that brings him back to Korea.  Jung-seok’s military past and the advent of Unit 631 are very cinematic, but surely every story can’t be placed in similar conditions without being repetitive.  
 
What are some of the considerations you’re making with regard to telling future stories in this world of zombies?
 
YSh:  As a director, I didn’t want to create the movie in the same way. While planning for Peninsula, the overarching desire was to create a movie that was different from Train to Busan.
 
Even though they shared the same world view, I wanted to make a movie that was a completely different genre with a destiny that was independent from the first.
 
Jung-seok’s character being former military and the emergence of Unit 631 were critical to the portrayal of the collapse of public authority.
 
Showing the loss of authority of public officials provided significant impact in depicting the despair the survivors of Peninsula feel.
 
LMD:  TRAIN TO BUSAN was a breakout success.  Did the success of that film add pressure or change your perspective in any way when making PENINSULA? 
 
YSh:  It is true that I did feel some pressure due to Train to Busan’s success and the fact that it garnered so much attention, but that pressure did not influence what I was able to or not able to do. 
 
With every movie I make, there isn’t much more I can do other than try to create the movie that is consistent with the intended vision.
 
LMD:  You are doing a new project for Netflix called HELL.  Can you tell us a little bit about it, and whether you have a project after that?
 
YSh:  I plan on making a Netflix Original animated series in collaboration with my best friend and cartoonist, Choi Gyu-seok.
 
The plot is about how in the wake of a sudden and surreal event, a society that believed things were normal turns savage.
 
It is a story that is more stable than Train to Busan or Peninsula, yet has many plot twists.
 
Also, the sequel to the occult drama, The Cursed, where I was the screenwriter, will be shooting soon.  In addition, I was the screenplay and creative director, while the director was Kim Yong-wan.
 
LMD:  Would you please give a message to our readers, who, due to the coronavirus, might be going to the cinema for the first time in months to watch PENINSULA?
 
YSh:  Peninsula is a different type of zombie action movie compared to Train to Busan.  I hope you will be able to enjoy the movie even while thinking that it has been a long time since you were able to have a pleasant night out at the theater.

PENINSULA opens in select US theatres on August 21st, 2020

This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
 
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Gang Dong-wonKorean CinemaLee Jung-hyunLee ReLee Ye-wonPeninsulaTrain To BusanYeon Sang-hoZombies

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