Release Date: August 14th, 2013 (South Korea)
Running Time: 121 mins.
Director: Kim Sung-Su
Writer: Kim Sung-Su, Lee Young-Jong
Starring: Jang Hyuk, Soo-Ae, Park Min-Ha, Yu Hae-Jin, Ma Dong-Seok, Lee Hee-Joon, Lee Sang-Yeob, Cha In-Pyo. Kim Ki-Hyeon, Andrew William Brand
When I saw The Flu advertised on the billboard of my local cinema I was surprised because it has been around four years since I last saw a Korean film play there and that was back at the tail end of the glory days of the Korean New Wave of the 2000’s. It turns out that the guys and girls behind the Korean Film Festival were instrumental in making sure it reached cinemas across the UK. Their choice is a canny one because the film has huge appeal due to its big-budget approach to the popular disaster genre.
April, 2014. Hong Kong. A group of illegal immigrants are sealed in a shopping container bound for South Korea. Huddled amidst the group is a man with a hacking cough. He does his best to hide his sickness but he has pallid skin and sweat drips off him. “Huddle together to stay warm,” the people trafficker overseeing their transport says before sealing them up.
May 01st, Bundang (a satellite city near Seoul). Emergency worker Kang Jigu (Jang Hyuk) rescues Dr Kim In-Hae (Soo-Ae) from her car which is about to plunge into a cavernous underground area. Despite the woman’s ingratitude he has fallen for her.
Meanwhile at Pyeongtaek harbour the container is met by two thugs, the brothers Byoung-Woo (Lee Sang-Yeob) and Byung-Ki (Lee Hee-Joon). Upon opening the container they are met with a horrific scene of dead bodies. Little do they realise it but they have encountered a mutated version of the avian flu virus. There is one survivor, Monsai, but he soon disappears on them just as one of the brothers shows symptoms of the flu. He is taken to hospital covered in red rashes and coughing up blood but quickly dies in agony.
May 02nd, the flu virus is spreading rapidly through the city. The virus has an infection rate of 3.4 people per second, there is no known cure, and death occurs within 36 hours. It just so happens that Dr Kim In-Hae is part of a crack medical team who specialise in viruses. She is also a single-mother who has left her young daughter Kim Mi-Reu (Park Min-Ha) home alone so she can aid in helping find a vaccine to the virus but when the chaos hits and the government draft in the military in order to lock the city of Bundang down, the doctor’s daughter is caught up in the chaos. Fortunately Kang Jigu is looking after her but will he be able to reunite mother and daughter amidst the draconian measures the government are taking and, more importantly, get a date out of it?
The Flu was one of the big successes at the Korean box-office this year. It combines melodrama and big action set pieces with the shaky cam realism often employed by action films.
The Flu is a large scale pandemic movie which zooms along through events both national and local as we see the spread of the virus through a contemporary first world city, the people caught up in it and the warring factions within the Korean government’s response to the unfolding crisis.
The fact that the film is Korean gives events an interesting flavour as we see how the government impose draconian measures to gain control over the situation. Scenes where riot police and the military descend upon civilians and protestors, and herd them into “quarantine camps” are pulse quickening and delivered with a fair level of verisimilitude.
How else can one deal with a mass epidemic but to keep the sick separate from everyone else? It felt like everything a modern society could do to control an epidemic was placed in this film but it gets very dark when one has knowledge of Korea’s history with dictatorships especially when the South Korean military fire on their own civilians referencing the Gwangju massacre in 1980.
The quarantine camp, which is where the main characters end up as a political and social crisis comes to a head, are the strongest section of the film. Nightmarish places full of chain-link fences, medical tents and razor-wire, soldiers who think nothing of pistol-whipping civilians and ghastly smoke-filled charnel houses. Characters are reduced to statistics and are herded in and out of tents, showers and, if they die, into huge pits. I have to agree with the reviewer over at Oriental Nightmares when she states that the scenes evoking images of real-life genocides are skilfully done and make the blood run cold.
There are many big-action set-pieces like riots and military strikes and these are very exciting to watch but the film descends into hysterics when it comes to the cast of characters who are caught up in these events.
It seems that everybody has read from the melodrama playbook and their actions are occasionally rather absurd. Dr Kim In-Hae’s actions in protecting her daughter help spread the infection and Jigu displays the worst child-care skills known to modern cinema by leaving little Mi-Reu on her own multiple times to save a fainting good-looking woman. I’m talking about leaving a six-year-old girl alone during riots, gunfights, and intense stand-offs between soldiers and protestors but then we need a cute little girl in peril to tug at our heart strings while getting the plot to go places and one can overlook these things when the film rattles along quickly. Indeed, the larger political stakes and the threat of military strikes help cover up the clunky sexual banter and the unsubtle regrets over being a bad mother that the main characters hold. The cast are still likeable so it is easy to ignore the bad characterisation.
Yes, it’s more gripping watching men in suits and uniforms argue over the morality of using force to stop a disaster especially when it’s all done with the big-budget Korean action movie sheen full of tense inter-cutting of shots of soldiers lining up to fire with the onwards approach of a wave of protesters and our good looking cast in danger.
Overall the film was an enjoyable spectacle. The big action set pieces are exciting and this is a unique and fun take on the epidemic drama.