Korea (2013) Dir. Kim Sung-su
Sometimes the title just says it all. Even the genre in which the film appears can tell you everything without having to watch it. The skill of the filmmaker therefore is to ensure that the story told is enticing enough for the viewer even if they can surmise the entire plot beforehand.
With that said, how much of the following sounds familiar? In Hong Kong a group of illegal immigrants flee the country inside a large container on a ship bound for South Korea. One of them has a bit of a cough. When the container arrives in Bundang, an affluent area of Seoul, the traffickers, Byung-ki (Kim Ki-hyeon) and brother Byung-woo (Lee Sang-yeob), find all but one of the immigrants are dead, all piled up in a foul bloody mess.
The sole survivor Monssai (Lester Avan Andrada) manages to run away but is still badly infected. Shortly after Byung-woo falls ill, coughing up blood and breaking out in a rash. When he is taken to hospital flu specialist Dr. Kim In-Hae (Soo-Ae) recognises the symptoms as Avian Flu and suggests Byung-woo is quarantined. However his coughing prior to collapsing has spread the disease and it is not long before it becomes an epidemic and Bundang is on lockdown.
Probably every infection based drama/horror film follows the above outline to a T so plot wise there are little surprises. But as much as this Korean disaster flick will be considered a derivation from recent Hollywood fare on the same subject, such as Contagion, the fact that our Asian friends are very well adept at big budget productions to suit such a premise means we can at the very least expect suitable popcorn entertainment.
For someone with over twenty years in the business Kim Sung-su has a very modest catalogue of just seven films, with Flu being his most recent, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he isn’t capable of handling a film of this scale. While the 122 minute run time might seem excessive, Kim uses it to its fullest in creating a grisly and gnarly world of hysteria and human decay both physically and morally.
It may often fall into melodrama mode with a little too much ease on occasion but there is enough intense action and tense emotional investment to be found here to counter such pitfalls. The human interest element in case you hadn’t guessed comes from Dr. In-hae whose young daughter Mirre (Park Min-Ha) becomes infected when she finds Monssai nearby her home and feeds him.
While In-hae is unaware of this firefighter Kang Ji-Koo (Jang Hyuk), who previously rescued In-hae after a car accident is called upon by Mirre to help Monssai who has fled again. When the lockdown occurs Kang tries to reunite mother and daughter but the sheer volume of infection cases and subsequent military intervention make each moment together a brief and tumultuous one.
Since this film was made the immigration crisis in Europe has escalated but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the intention behind Kim and collaborator Lee Yeong-jong’s script was to demonise or create ill feeling towards immigrants; of course an epidemic can start and spread domestically just as easily as it can be brought into another country.
This might also apply to the presence of the bossy and bellicose American UN representative Leo Snyder (Boris Stout), having a dig at the US’s “We are the Word Police” attitude, with Snyder claiming authority over the Korean President (Cha In-pyo). In one of the few credibility stretching moments the President had previously played the “death of few vs. death of millions” card and had the infected surreptitiously slaughtered but as soon as Snyder sticks his nose in, it is “hands off my countrymen!”.
Similarly when we first meet Kang and In-hae it is a comical affair as In-hae’s car had been forced off the road and left dangling over a construction site pit. The whole scene is played as awkward when In-hae gets irate that Kang has to rip her expensive skirt to free her. While we can see the route this relationship is going to take, the pair’s personalities do a 180 and suddenly both are the deadly serious, strong and moral protagonists the story needs.
Aside from the odd concession to the genre convention, this fast paced and highly eventful outing poses many questions about the possibility of deceptive political fumbling of such a problem. A disclaimer that this is a work of pure fiction opens the film but we never know what goes on behind those doors. Maybe our leaders ARE simply hoping they can sweep this under the carpet and quietly kill off the infected to expediate the clean up whilst protecting their jobs.
The high production values the budget affords gives us a good looking film with superb camera work and well staged scenes of pandemonium, buttressed by the tight editing between multiple scenes of frantic panic, creating a genuine sense of fear driven mayhem. Some CGI and optical effects are employed to drive home the airborne nature of the flu amidst the strong practical action.
As ever the Korean cast throw themselves into their roles. Jang Hyuk makes for a decent dependable male hero while Soo-Ae gives her all to portraying the conflicted Dr. Kim. Six year-old Park Min-Ha is exceptional as Mirre, bravely taking everything thrown at her whilst remaining utterly adorable. Keen eyed Korean film fans will also recognise Yu Hae-Jin as Jang’s hapless co-worker and Ma Dong-Seok as the no-nonsense operations chief.
The blockbuster presentation shouldn’t be an excuse not to see this film as it does offer plenty in the way of visceral shocks and food for thought in how authorities handle an epidemic like this, whilst exploring the faults of mankind when self-preservation becomes necessary.
Flu might be pure fantasy but it presents us with a compelling enough case for us to be prepared for the worst. You never know….