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(Screened at the 2013 London Korean Film Festival.)
A deadly outbreak devastates Korea in “The Flu”, the latest film from acclaimed “Musa the Warrior” director Kim Sung Su, and his first in some ten years. The blockbuster thriller takes the real life threat of a mutated version of the avian flu virus and ramps it up in classic disaster movie fashion, placing an A-list cast in its path with the usual apocalyptic results. Popular stars Jang Hyuk (“Iris 2”) and Soo Ae (“Athena, Goddess of War”) headline, racing against time as they try to save themselves and find a cure.
The film begins with a container full of illegal Hong Kong immigrants arriving in a suburb of Seoul, only for the smugglers to open it and find them dead, victims of a particularly nasty new strain of avian flu. A lone survivor escapes and unwittingly starts spreading the disease, with thousands more being infected every hour and dying within days. To quarantine the virus, the government calls in the army and puts in place ruthless measures, though the city soon falls into chaos, leading to threats of intervention from overseas. Against this backdrop, rescue worker Ji Koo (Jang Hyuk) tries to save virologist Dr Kim In Hae (Soo Ae), though they too are trapped in the quarantine zone, and when her young daughter (Park Min Ha) appears to fall sick, the search for an antidote becomes even more desperate.
Given that most recent commercial Korean disaster films have been disappointingly melodramatic affairs, it’s a relief to find that “The Flu” is decidedly more of a disease thriller, and one which shows a fine understanding of what can make the genre so much morbid fun. Kim Sung Su’s approach shows a good balance of character drama, conspiracy and suspense, and this helps considerably in keeping the dreaded tears and hysterics in the background. The film focuses for the main part on Ji Koo ad Dr. Kim instead of the usual ensemble cast of thinly sketched stereotypes, and as result, though neither could be called complex or terribly realistic protagonists, they do at least have some level of emotional attachment for the viewer. The plot also benefits from some decent human villains in an increasingly deranged army colonel (Ma Dong Seok, “Norigae”) and a handful of sleazy politicians, which helps to add another dimension of threat and ensures that the film has some genuinely tense moments as it builds.
Most notable amongst these lowlifes is a cruel, moustachioed foreigner, who is clearly used to criticise the perceived pandering to the U.S. of the Korean governments, and through this the film feels at times very similar to Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host”, showing the same distrust of blind obedience to the authorities. This is similarly reflected in scenes of rioting civilians being brutally charged and beaten by soldiers, recalling sequences in protest films such as “May 18”, and though any satire is undermined by a clumsily heroic depiction of the Korean president, the script does have a certain depth and intelligence not often seen in the disaster form.
Obviously, Kim Sung Su’s film differs in that it features an invisible virus instead of a rampaging mutant, though it certainly manages to make the most of its menace, with a nicely escalating air of doom as the city and its citizens are decimated. The film is very good value for the money when it comes to scenes of mass destruction and panic, with several memorable set pieces as things spiral out of control, including one in particular dealing with Ji Koo trying to escape a mass grave and flame thrower wielding assailants. Kim’s direction is slick and confident, though at the same time has a pleasingly hard edge, packing in some suitably gruesome shots of unfortunate victims and some reasonably violent action. This serves well to make for a real sense of danger, helping to hammer home the film’s hopes of convincing the viewer that its doomsday scenario is one which could befall any country at any time.
Whether or not it truly succeeds in this is perhaps debatable, though “The Flu” is definitely a lot of fun, and one of the better Korean thrillers of the year, not to mention a very solid example of the sadly less than prolific disease genre. Kim Sung Su is a director who really should work more often, as based on the evidence here, he’s more than capable of injecting energy and thought into a familiar, tried and tested premise.
Sung-su Kim (director) / Sung-su Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Soo Ae Soo Ae … Kim In-hae
Andrew William Brand … Dr. Bill Backman
In-Pyo Cha … President
Yoo Hae-jin … Bae Kyung-ub
Hyuk Jang … Kang Ji-koo
Hee-joon Lee … Byung-ki