Since the film’s release in South Korea on July 15, Peninsula has stormed to impressive box office takings, with a total gross of around $23.5 million so far, with 3.2 million admissions. Returning to helm the Train to Busan sequel is director Yeon Sang-ho, accompanied by producer Lee Dong-ha, whose outfit Redpeter Films boarded the two zombie blockbusters. Peninsula stars Gang Dong-won and Lee Jung-hyun.
Originally set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year before the Covid-19 pandemic threw the festival circuit into disarray, Peninsula opened in Taiwan and Singapore on the same day of its South Korean domestic release. In Singapore, Peninsula recorded the most successful launch ever for a Korean film in the market, surpassing its predecessor, Train to Busan (2016), with $795,000 at the box office over the first five days. Considering the film’s launch in the middle of a global pandemic, and with cinemas operating at a much lower capacity due to physical distancing requirements, this feat is all the more remarkable.
Peninsula picks up four years from where Train to Busan ends. After surviving the zombie disaster and moving to live in Hong Kong, ex-soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) is given an opportunity to return to the Korean peninsula to locate an abandoned truck and retrieve bags of cash. He embarks on the journey back to the decimated land, and runs into more than he had originally asked for.
The first film that producer Lee Dong-ha ever launched under Redpeter Films was Train to Busan, which premiered at Cannes four years ago. Starting out as a local fixer for Korean films while living in France, Lee has built an illustrious career over the decades. He co-produced Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, and through Train to Busan and Peninsula, has boldly redefined the sheer ambition and direction for zombie genre films in South Korea.
Here, Lee shares more on his journey of bringing Peninsula to the big screen, and what he will be working on next.
Sara Merican: With such a big film like Peninsula, and so many expectations… everyone has different ideas about what they would like to see in a sequel, how do you manage that?
Lee Dong-ha: The director and actors have more pressure than I do. I would like to express my gratitude to the director for being so brave to take on this challenge and to the actors for deciding to star in the sequel of Train to Busan. The pressure for me is focused on supporting them to make the movie more creative. As you mentioned, Train to Busan was a box office hit and that would have burdened them with more pressure when directing and acting for this movie. My role was to support them.
Merican: How was the production for Peninsula different from Train to Busan? Was this harder, or easier compared to Train to Busan?
Lee: Since most of the staff members for Peninsula had also worked on Train to Busan, the teamwork was good, and they understood what the director wanted in his visuals. However, we had to spend a great deal of time preparing with the actors in advance for the scenes with a big gap between the location and the parts which would later be filled with VFX. There was nothing particularly difficult as we spent lots of time preparing as much as we could during the pre-production phase.
Merican: The film was supposed to premiere at Cannes, but that could not happen because of the coronavirus situation. What are your thoughts on this?
Lee: It’s a pity. Last year, when we were preparing for this film, we had a goal that if we were invited by Cannes, we would release the movie for the first time there. And then come back to Korea to release it here, and simultaneously in multiple countries. It’s a pity that we could not release it at Cannes, and also could not release the film together with all the other countries because of the Covid-19 situation.
Merican: I watched Peninsula, and felt that it was more action-heavy, while Train to Busan seemed to have more focus on class divides and social inequalities, why was there this difference in direction?
Lee: One thing to understand is that Peninsula features the state of affairs four years after incidents in Train to Busan took place. We wanted to show how this society would look like, how people who lived with zombies would have changed.
Merican: It was interesting how this film’s story kind of begins in Hong Kong. How did the production in Hong Kong come about?
Lee: The film scenes featuring Hong Kong were a mix of actual shoots in Hong Kong by our director of photography who flew to Hong Kong by himself. The scenes with actors were all shot in Korea. Thanks to some additional work done by our production team, they look as if they were taken in Hong Kong. Also, at the time we had to film the Hong Kong scenes, we couldn’t easily fly there since the city was going through a difficult time last year.
Merican: And how about the actors speaking Cantonese, did they have to learn?
Lee: There was always a Cantonese coach at the scene to guide the actors.
Merican: With a title like Peninsula, I thought that North Korea would play a bigger role in the film. What was the thought process around this?
Lee: When director Yeon Sang-ho came up with the title Peninsula, we talked a lot about how the things would have developed in North Korea. But we thought that it would be more intriguing for the movie to have South Korea perfectly isolated. We wanted to give a complete sense of isolation.
Merican: You collaborate with director Yeon Sang-ho often. What makes your partnership work?
Lee: We can read each other’s minds quickly. Just by looking at the director’s facial expression, I can figure out what his worries are. I have also heard a lot about what kinds of stories he wants to tell so I have a deep understanding about his work. These are a few positive things about my partnership with him.
Merican: Do you feel drawn to these big blockbuster films and commercial films, or do you see yourself going into less commercial-type films, like when you worked on Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry?
Lee: Among the scripts I am working on for now, there are small and big stories. The size itself does not matter. What matters is which story is more well-prepared or appealing. That is why I am preparing for several projects regardless of their size. Also, if possible, I would like to collaborate on films with other countries.
Merican: Which countries would you like to collaborate with?
Lee: I do not have specific country in mind but I want to collaborate with many other countries in Asia.
Merican: Over the past few years, what sort of challenges have you faced?
Lee: Making a large-scale zombie movie was unconventional during the time I was producing Train to Busan, so it was difficult to understand that. Also, though the last two movies (Birthday and Another Child) I produced last year were on a smaller scale, I went through difficulties making them within the boundaries of a commercial film. The topics were tricky to deal with as well. Making a film is difficult, regardless of size. Even for people with lots of experience, nothing is easy.
Merican: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Lee: First of all, I would like to thank all audiences in Singapore who went to the cinema to watch Peninsula. I would also like to express my deepest gratitude to all audiences of countries such as Taiwan and Malaysia, where the movie was released. I also hope to meet audiences from all over the world when the time comes.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.