Director: Han Jae Rim
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Kim Nam-Gil, Jeon Do-Yeon, Yim Si-Wan, Kim So-Jin, Park Hae-Joon
Runtime: 2 hrs 20 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Disturbing Scenes)
Released By: Encore Films and Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 4 August 2022
Synopsis: 'Emergency Declaration': If an aircraft faces a potential disaster, and normal flight can no longer be maintained, the pilot calls for an unconditional landing. Veteran chief police detective In-ho (Song Kang-Ho) receives a tip about a man threatening a terrorist attack against a plane. While investigating, he discovers that the suspect has boarded flight no. KI501. Despite his phobia of flying, Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-Hun) decides to go to Hawaii for the sake of his daughter’s health. At the airport, he is distracted by a strange man who hangs around, speaking to them in a menacing way. Flight no. KI501 departs Incheon Airport for Hawaii, but soon afterwards a man dies for mysterious reasons. Fear and chaos spread quickly, not only inside the plane, but also on land. Hearing this news, Transport Minister Sook-hee (Jeon Do-Yeon) sets up a counterterrorism task force and calls an emergency meeting to find a way to land the airplane. .
‘Emergency Declaration’ is but just a fancy name for an otherwise formulaic airplane disaster film, which is the first such genre outing for South Korean cinema.
Written and directed by Han Jae-rim on an impressive 25 billion won budget, the movie imagines a mid-air crisis sparked by the bioterrorist Jin-seok (Im Si-wan), who has smuggled a lethal virus on board a commercial flight from Incheon bound for Honolulu. Jin-seok unleashes the virus when the plane is airborne, causing death to spread slowly but surely from one passenger to another.
When even the chief pilot succumbs to the virus, it becomes incumbent upon the deputy pilot Hyeon-soo (Kim Nam-gil) to decide whether and when to make an emergency declaration, which obliges air traffic controllers to give it absolute priority over other aircraft to ensure an unconditional landing.
On the other hand, the decision before the people on the ground is whether to let Sky Korea Flight 501 land at their respective airports, given the threat on board and the consequent risk it poses to the general population. Weighing that tradeoff is Minister Suk-hee (Jeon Do-yeon) and presidential official Tae-soo (Park Hae-soon), gathered at the crisis management centre to decide on the fates of the 121 people on the flight.
Caught in the crisis is Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), who is travelling to Honolulu with his daughter for the sake of her health; as it turns out, Jae-hyuk will reveal himself to be a former pilot later on, whose brave emergency landing years ago has left him with aviophobia. Fuelling the ground response is veteran detective In-ho (Song Kang-ho), whose instinct about Jin-seok’s video promising to attack an aircraft leads him to suspect that something terrible might be happening on board Flight 501.
To Han’s credit, the set-up is captivating, establishing surely and steadily the various characters as well as their subsequent fates in the air and down below. It also lays the ground for the couple of notable Hollywood-style set-pieces, including one where the plane free-falls towards the ocean after its pilot passes out and another where a car chase is seen entirely from the windscreen of the vehicle in pursuit. Han does good on the film’s promise of disaster spectacle, delivering several nail-biting moments that will leave you with your heart in your mouth.
Yet Han does himself no favours with a contrived narrative whose sheer coincidences are simply too preposterous to ignore. How else would you describe why In-ho’s wife just happens to be on the same plane? Or how Jae-hyuk and Hyeon-soo happen to be former colleagues, who can therefore conveniently take over control of the plane after its pilot gets infected and dies? Ditto how In-ho gets into a high-security biotechnology lab to gain immunity to the virus, demanding that he be injected with the virus followed by an anti-viral drug.
Not even a credible cast with the likes of Lee and Song can save the storytelling from its own cliches, and therefore undermining what would otherwise be a solid summer blockbuster. Indeed, ‘Emergency Declaration’ is neither a cautionary tale or a procedural for that matter; this is ultimately a demonstration that Korean cinema can pull off an airplane disaster film as competently as Hollywood can, and as long as you’re in the mood for some ‘Con(tagion-in-the)-Air’, you’ll find this a modest diversion good for two hours of undemanding viewing.
(Plenty of thrills if little logic or credibility, this airplane disaster movie is Korean cinema's version of 'Con(tagion-in-the)-Air')
Review by Gabriel Chong