Director: Kim Sung-soo
Cast: Jang Hyuk, Su Ae, Park Min-ha, Yoo Hae-jin, Ma Dong-suk, Lee Hui-joon
RunTime: 2 hrs 2 min
Rating: NC-16 (Coarse Language & Disturbing Scenes)
Released By: GV & Scorpio East Pictures
Official Website: http://theflu2013.interest.me/index.htm
Opening Day: 3 October 2013
Synopsis: A human trafficker is infected with an unknown virus and dies in a Bundang hospital. In less than 24 hours since the death of the first patient, more similar cases are reported all over Bundang. Fatalities rise rapidly even before the government can react properly to the virus and more of its citizens are getting infected every minute. The airborne virus turns Bundang in utter chaos and as a desperate measure the government shuts the city down to prevent further outbreaks that could spread to rest of the country and the world. Citizens of Bundang are forced into quarantine zones, as some risk their lives to save those they love, while some risk others to save their own lives...
The simply titled ‘The Flu’ bears the honour of being the sophomore South Korean disaster film to be built around a pandemic, but that probably won’t be immediately apparent judging from how accomplished Kim Sung-soo’s film is. Whereas such genre films tend to struggle between keeping an intimate focus on some key characters and retaining the larger expanse of the calamity, this one is staged with impressive clarity from start to finish, never once losing its grip from a tense thrilling ride.
Careful not to bite off more than he can chew, Kim confines the pandemic to Bundang, an affluent suburb of Seoul. A quick prologue establishes how a ship container of illegal immigrants from Hong Kong arrives in the city, all of whom are dead from a lethal airborne avian flu virus - save for one very sick man. No thanks to one of two handlers sent to pick up the immigrants, the virus finds its next host to take root, eventually spreading to the people at the pharmacy where he tries to get medicine - and thereafter to just about anyone and everyone with close contact to his bodily fluids.
Some quick thinking on the part of the authorities - or for that matter, Kim - means that Bundang is swiftly quarantined from the rest of the country, so that unlike its more ambitious Hollywood counterparts ‘Contagion’ and ‘World War Z’, it has no need to address just how the pandemic is affecting populations at different ends of the globe. Instead, a smaller but tighter narrative ensues, as soldiers and other Government security personnel swoop in to set up quarantine camps to separate the visibly infected from those without any signs or symptoms - and in the process get rid of the disease-ridden members of the populace.
On a national level, Kim casts a critical eye on the responses of the President and his councilmen, to whom life-and-death decisions are not just made for the greater good but also with the consideration of political mileage. Despite the obvious - and rather strained - hysterics especially towards the end, this dimension of the story is an altogether interesting angle - not least for the fact that it also illuminates the hypothetical tension which may arise between the Koreans and the Americans, the latter of whom have considerable presence in the country as part of the United States Pacific Command.
By and large though, the story is driven from the point of view of three key characters struggling to survive amid the chaos and confusion within Bundang - there’s the Emergency Response Team worker Kang Ji-goo (Jang Hyuk), immunologist Kim In-hye (Su Ae) and In-hye’s precocious young daughter Mi-reu (Park Min-ha). In several meet-cute moments before the epidemic becomes full blown, Ji-goo gets to rescue In-hye from a freak car accident, go beyond the call of duty to save In-hye’s belongings from the scene of the accident, and play the surrogate father figure to Mi-reu.
Admittedly, Kim throws in a fair number of narrative contrivances in order for some generous melodramatic posturing. It probably won’t come as any surprise that Mi-reu will get separated from In-hye early on during the melee to engender a mother-daughter reunion, or that Mi-reu will catch the virus at some point such that In-hye’s quest to locate and develop the antibody isn’t just a professional mission but a personal one as well. And yes, like ‘World War Z’, this one is all about finding the cure to end the bloodshed, which in this case lies in the lone illegal immigrant who survived the perilous journey that was responsible for bringing the virus to the city.
Yes, those who do not like their drama with a heavy dollop of theatrics will probably be cringing in their seats, simply because Kim isn’t a director who deals with much subtlety. Every opportunity to tug at his audience’s heartstrings or arouse their sense of indignation is played up to maximum effect, right down to the absolutely manipulative finale where Mi-reu becomes a walking placard of a plea for humanity to prevail. Despite the heavy-handedness, there is a pulsing urgency to the proceedings that grips you from the start, and we suspect casual viewers will still likely - as we were - to be swept up by the emotional intensity of the film.
It does help that Kim inserts moments of levity from time to time. Mi-reu’s bonding with Ji-goo before the start of the pandemic establishes a pleasantly amusing rapport between the two, which of course is milked for sympathy later on. But there is always Ji-goo’s daft male colleague for comic relief (played by veteran actor Yoo Hae-jin), who never fails to bring a smile with his desperate antics to win the attention of the ladies he assist on the job - no wonder then he gets a humorous coda at the end that sees him helping a snooty but pretty lady free her skirt caught in the door of a public bus.
This being his first film after a decade, Kim - best known for his work on the historical epic ‘Musa The Warrior’ - shows that his cinematic sensibilities as a director of large-scale action sequences has not dulled. In particular, the extended standoff between the remaining residents of Bundang and the military demonstrate a certain boldness in imagination and execution, on a scale rarely seen in Korean cinema. Put aside the fact that it plays too often to an Asian audience’s taste for hand-wringing, Kim’s virus disaster film is a grand accomplishment on many levels, especially in how it portrays the scope of the catastrophe both on a larger and much more intimate level. It is riveting stuff indeed, like a shot of pure adrenaline to the arm.
(Korea’s answer to ‘Contagion’ and ‘Outbreak’ doesn’t shy away from melodrama - but still is a tense thrilling disaster movie staged with impressive clarity on a huge scale)
Review by Gabriel Chong