The Flu that threatens South Korea with disaster is transported into the country by a shipping container from Hong Kong in which a group of illegal immigrants are hiding, hoping for a better life. Instead locked inside the hot and suffocating container, they all succumb to a deadly virus, with the exception of one male survivor. Within hours, a deadly virus is sweeping over Korea and people are dying by the hundreds. Can the beautiful Dr. Kim In-Hae (Soo-ae), whose young daughter becomes infected, discover the cause of the virus and find a cure before it is too late for her daughter and everyone else?
First up, I was one of the few who enjoyed Deranged (PARK Jung-woo: 2012) at last year’s London Korean Film Festival, and secondly, I prefer zombies, and lots of them, or else suitably decaying and abject bodies in a contagion film (yes, I know that I mixing genres to please myself). The emphasis in The Flu was not so much on individual stories of infected families – as is usually the case – but rather the political battle between the president and prime minster and and the US military over the ‘final solution’ to the problem. And indeed, the most effective scenes were the large scale action scenes, rather than the human interactions between Kang Ji-koo (Jang Hyuk) – a rescue worker – and In-hae and Mi-reu (Park Min-ha). which provides the core of the human interest drama and the main focus of audience identification and empathy.
In opposition to the small-scale human drama, the large scale action scenes were gripping and showed Director KIM as having a real deft touch and skill when it comes to action. The scene in which infected people were cold-bloodily shot down and their bodies dumped in a large pit was particularly effective and resonated at a number of levels in relation to real-life acts of genocide including the death pits of Auschwitz. In a subsequent scene, the non-infected but quarantined people, attempt to cross over the line between the excluded zone and the city, as the South Korean military take aim to fire upon them, a visual allusion to the Gwangju massacre in 1980. Neither politicians nor the US military come over particularly well, and indeed it is the US military that insist on the ‘final solution’ – again it is easy to see a correspondence between the fictional here and the factual situation in South Korea where the US military remains in order to police the border between North and South Korea (the so-called DMZ).
While I know this sounds bleak, there are enough crowd pleasing moment in the film that make it an overall enjoyable experience. As I have said, I found the human element of the film not convincing, but the action sequences on their own were executed exceptionally well.
After the screening, most audience members stayed for the Q&A which demonstrates how much they enjoyed the film – as usually the beginning of a Q&A is marked by the mass exodus by the majority of the audience.
Tony Rayns began by discussing the outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong in 2003 and why South Korea had no cases (in fact he relayed an anecdote about a study that seemed to prove that Kimchi [picked cabbage, a staple of the South Korea diet, and very delicious) killed the SARS virus). He also asked about the political implications of the film, some of which I note above in my review. Director KIM was reluctant to admit to an explicit political critique, although he admitted that growing up in South Korea at a time of political repression very likely had an unconscious impact on the narrative and spectacle of the film.
In relation to the mass burials (which for me, as above, resonated in terms of the Holocaust - as it is always about our own cultural frames of references in how we interpret a film), Director KIM talked about the foot and mouth outbreak between 2010-2011 which lead to the mass culling of thousands of pigs as being his point of reference. He talked about the necessity of mass burials happening out of sight so there are no witness (again I cannot help but think about the Holocaust), and said that was his reason for setting the mass murder in a football stadium, which is a space isolated from ordinary life and vision. He went on to say that he used a football stadium to increase the impact of this scene, as a stadium is usually associated with festival and happiness and not despair and death.
There were a number of other questions asked about the use of face masks and dialogue (voices were dubbed in postproduction), the casting of the daughter and an interesting sidebar about there being no regulations to protect child actors in South Korea at the moment. The director admitted that he tried to do his utmost to protect her during the shooting, although at one stage he got her mother to say something to her so that she would cry for real rather than just act sad.
Director KIM finished by saying that he realized that he wasn’t very good at disaster films in line with the typical refreshing honesty of Korean directors to actually admit if they are not altogether happy with their films and wouldn’t be making another one. His next project he said would be an action film. On the basis of this, I shall look forward to it.