Train To Busan revitalised the zombie horror genre. Made by director Yeon Sang-ho in 2016 and set almost entirely on a speeding train, few ghoul-led films made in the last decade could match it for excitement, innovation or creeping dread. Within Yeon Sang-ho’s native Korea, over 11 million people saw the film in cinemas. Worldwide, its profit registered at a cool $98.5 million.
An animated prequel, Seoul Station, quickly followed and Peninsula, the subsequent live-action movie in the series recently premiered in the UK. It picks up four years after the events of Train To Busan and stars Gang Dong-won in the lead. More of an action movie than a horror one and with dystopian themes that feel worryingly relevant to the world off screen, it shares a similar frenetic urgency to the first film.
We caught up with Gang to learn more.
So, ‘Peninsula’. Can you tell us how you came to get the part?
“It was two years ago. My best friend [Yang Jin-mo] was the editor on Parasite. He called me one day and told me that Yeon Sang-ho wanted to meet me. I asked why and he said, ‘He has a new project and wants to work with you’ and I thought, ‘Why not?’. As an actor, making the sequel to an incredibly successful movie might not be that interesting, but I really wanted to meet him, just to tell him how much I liked Train To Busan. That was such a great, fresh movie.”
What was that meeting like?
“Well, I’d actually met him before. I was having a party with my friends after finishing a movie. Na Hong-jin, who directed [2016 breakout horror hit] The Wailing called me and asked where I was. I told him, then he came with Yeon Sang-ho. We didn’t talk much because Yeon Sang was really, really drunk. We arranged a dinner and he shared his thoughts about his new project. I wanted to know what kind of person he was, and I really liked the way he thought about things.”
Like a lot of Korean actors, your filmography is very eclectic. Still, you’ve never made a movie like this before…
“Nobody has. I really wanted to make a post-apocalyptic movie. Hopefully we’ll never experience a world like that, but I wanted to experience it anyway! That sort of scenario is fantastic as an actor because it’s all about people in extreme situations – there’s cruelty, love, the fight to keep your humanity. You can really show your range. But also, there’s never really been a movie like this in Korea.”
Tell me a bit about the casting process in Korean films. Is it always a case of ‘who you know’?
“I think it’s the same in the west, connections matter. There’s a lot of meeting with friends, talking about ideas and then making them happen. There’s been so many hit horror movies from Korea and I attribute that to our system and how much we value creativity. There’s a shared passion to make something new. The director will almost always write the script, and they keep the rights for the editing, so there’s a lot of creative control. We don’t really have a big studio system here. Almost all Korean movies are independent movies.”
You’re very famous in Korea. How did you become an actor?
“I never even considered it when I was young, not for a second! I grew up in the countryside, then I came to Seoul to major in Mechanical Engineering at college. I did a bit of modelling to make ends meet, but I got approached by people asking if I was interested in the entertainment business. It sounded like fun, so I started going to acting class. First lesson I realised I loved it. I had a skill to ignore other people and embrace the character. It was a surprise to me!”
Often when I interview actors, they cite a particular film that made them realise they wanted to get into the industry…
“I never had that experience. I did make a [martial arts] movie in 2005 called Duelist and the director of that movie, Lee Myung-se, really instilled in me a love of making movies. That guy lives for making movies. He taught me a lot about lighting and camera angles. What he does is like magic! He made the movie Nowhere To Hide in 1999. You know the Matrix movies? They borrowed a lot from that. It’s a fantastic movie.”
Could you ever see yourself ever stepping behind the camera and directing?
“Never! Two years ago I did write a script. I know the director Jang Joon-hwan. He’s a genius. He made [2003 comedy sci-fi flick Save The Green Planet] and we did a short film together called Love For Sale. It’s like a B-movie, a sci-fi movie and you can watch it on YouTube. I really wanted to expand the short into a commercial movie but he told me he couldn’t write the script. So I did it! But soon after that I went to LA to shoot a movie so the conversation stopped, but the project is still ongoing…”
What can you tell us about your experience in LA?
“Well, we had to stop for the time being because of Coronavirus, but I learned a lot. It’s very different there compared to Korea. In Korea we don’t have the audition system. New actors will audition, but if you’re established you normally won’t. I had to audition for the movie in LA and that was a totally new experience. I didn’t find it too weird. I really like embracing new cultures, so I just dived in. I want to work more in the west. Everyone in Korean film is my friend, so I want to try new things. I want to work with every talented person in the world! But I think a lot of east Asian actors find the experience of auditioning difficult.”
Something people in the UK might be surprised to learn, is that men are required to stop their careers at some point in their late teens or twenties to perform national service…
“Oh, it’s terrible! You have to join for two years. You have a girlfriend and family and they’re crying all night before you sign up. I joined the army when I was 29. You have to take a group shower when you start and I was already pretty famous at that point. So I walk in and everyone is watching me, pointing at me. Thankfully I made some good friends and they helped me out. They were like, ‘Don’t look at him! Only we can look at him!’”
‘Train To Busan: Peninsula’ previews in cinemas over the Halloween weekend, before its official release on November 6. It is available to own on available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Download from November 30