If you watch one film this year make it Kim Sung Soo’s epic disaster movie The Flu. This is a piece of exciting and emotionally evocative film making from South Korea. I was lucky enough to see the film at the premier at the Korean Film Festival London with the director himself. Kim Sung Soo had admitted that while being an action director he loved the script for this film so much he had to make it. He recalled the swine flu epidemic in Korea and the way the pigs were treated and thus decided to make a film that showed this horror but with humans instead. It worked amazingly and a masterpiece was created.
Now I know that many like me will have seen various disaster and epidemic movies so it’s hard not to compare this film to its predecessors but that doesn’t make it any less of a great film that delivers a clear view. I could see traces of films such as Contagion and Blindness in this movie and these are also great examples of the epidemic genre. Like these genre pieces Flu looks at the big picture as well as the street level difficulties. It follows not only the people at ground zero, the doctors, the civilians but also the government, ministers and bureaucrats.
The story is simple and clear, South Korea has never had an outbreak of avian flu and this is a hypothetical telling of what would happen if they did. A container of Hong Kong illegals is shipped into Korea, amongst them one is sick. During their transportation the virus is able to mutate in the container into a super version of avian flu which is highly contagious and has a 36hr incubation period. Container is opened and the virus is set free able to infect its first victims before spreading through the population of Bungdang, a smaller city just outside of Seoul. What transpires is one of the most realistic portrayals of disaster response, human courage and weakness and tragedy. This film does not hold back in any way, it is harsh and exposing; it is emotional and thought provoking. I was equal parts horrified by some of it as I was inspired by other parts.
The film’s star is Min-ah Park who plays 6 year old Mireu. I have never seen such a strong child actress who had to go through so much during this movie. The story follows the characters that surround Mireu, her mother Kim In-Hae who is a doctor and the first to discover and identify the virus and rescue worker Ji-koo. Ji-koo first meets In-Hae when he rescues her from a car accident and from that moment their lives are intertwined and they work together in a race against time to survive the horror of the epidemic and find the anti-bodies that will provide a cure.
On the street level we follow the bother of the first victim of the flu a violent thug that wants revenge for his brother death against the one remaining immigrant from the container. Momsshin is the only one who survived the container but he is so spooked by what is happening around him he goes on the run and it’s a desperate search to hunt him down and discover why he did not die from the virus. Meanwhile government officials come together to try and work out how to contain the outbreak. A power struggle between the medical specialists and the bureaucrats develops as the minster is worried about public opinions and the polls rather than the full connotations of this epidemic. The power plays are amazing, seeing it from the point of view of politicians gives us a counter view, issues such as how the world will view the decisions they make, do they sacrifice the few to save the many, what are the human rights of the infected, how do you measure public opinion and who has the final say, the president, the prime minister, the CDC or the foreign disaster response team that are looking at how this epidemic might affect the global population if not contained.
The film is fast paced and never slows for a second; we have intense scenes as well as small moments of grief and despair. In Korean style there are moments of light hearted comedy that make the characters endearing and this almost family unit come across as very human, very determined, very likable and very compelling. In-Hae’s struggle between being a single mother and the research doctor trying to find the cure. Does she go and look for her daughter and be caught in the chaos erupting around her or does she stay safe in the labs researching a cure. Mireu the strong child who find herself lost and confused, she doesn’t understand what’s happening around her or the decisions of the adults but still stands up for what she believes when the time comes. Ji-koo who has found himself a guardian to a small child, does he stay and protect her, a child he barely knows or does he abandon her to the chaos. Ji-koo has a sense of honour as a rescue worker and can’t just let people die when he can do something to help them, he is a strong hero for the story and never compromises his ideals.
The film has a lot of action and really hits the ground running, rioting, car accidents, violent deaths, and the breakdown of command and control all feature. The virus is harsh and destroys its victims and soon the body count is running into the thousands. It shows what would happen when people get desperate, when people think their rights are threatened and when politics and these rights collide. The answer is to shut down Bungdang and keep the entire city as a quarantine zone. But you can’t just lock people up, when people get scared and panic it only breed chaos and this film depicts this perfectly. The rising sense of urgency like a time boom ready to go off is at the heart of the film. The score is very reminiscent of Danny Boyles 28 days later and this gives is the extra punch.
I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I laughed and cried and I could feel myself panic. I was on the edge of my seat not only though the scenes of rioting or characters getting ill but also during the bureaucratic debates. This is definitely the best epidemic movie to be made, blending the social commentary of Blindness and issues of quarantine and the breakdown of the chain of command, with Contagion and mass panic, chaos and human nature to riot. It also had elements of 28 days later with the bleakness, the viciousness of the virus and the idea that people could become monsters when they panic. Another interesting comparison is with Torchwood Miracle day and how to treat the infected, what is the best way to get rid of the bodies, how would society breakdown and what happens when the truth of the politicians decisions are learnt by the public.
Do remember to take tissues with you this film and be prepared for a rather large shock in the movie. The director warned us about it but still to see it was frightening. I would normally give away spoilers but this is one scene that you don’t want spoilt and I was happy the director just said be prepared. A must see film, a champion of Korean cinema that is full of strength in acting, effects, scoring, action, emotion and storytelling. It has strong characters, doesn’t force feed us too much cliché’s and “isn’t this awful” storytelling. It hides nothing about what could happen in this situation but allows us a very human and relatable way into the story. It never alienates the viewer and lets us make up our own minds. It shows both side of human nature and admits that we can panic and do awful things just as we can do courageous and meaningful things. It is full of human emotion and yet also realistic about what could happen and how government and media plays a part in disaster control.
Please go see this film you won’t be disappointed!!!!
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