Out this weekend is the Korean blockbuster 'Flu'. Kim Sung-su’s stylish thriller is only superficially similar to American epidemic disaster movie, such as 'Contagion', and the recent trend to throw an epidemic spin on zombie films, such as 'World War Z' and 'The Crazies'.
Jang Hyuk stars as the irreverent but warm-hearted Jigu, an Emergency Response worker who spends his days extricating the citizens of Bundang from various crashes, accidents and mishaps. One of these citizens is Su Ae’s virologist In-hye, who instead of falling for him like he’d hoped, admonishes him for losing her handbag while pulling her from the wreckage of her car. Meanwhile, human traffickers accidentally unleash a mutated form of bird flu onto the city.
The majority of the film’s drama comes from In-hye’s daughter, Mirre, who’s played with singular zeal by Park Min-ha, and has a tendency to wander off, leaving Jigu and In-hye frantically searching for her. This is repeated a few times and might start to wear a little thin with some viewers, but it’s a conceit largely kept afloat by the rising stakes accompanying her safety when she later proves vital to the battle against the disease. Other repetitions are likewise understandable, if a little grating, such as the several montages of people coughing, which chart the spread of the flu, and the scenes which consist entirely of Mirre shouting ‘Mommy!’ and her mother shouting ‘Mirre!’, for what feels like an eternity.
Villains and heroes alike are characterised in broad strokes, and it’s a shame to see selfish congressmen and craven military personnel who have no depths to reveal, especially since there’s a lot of time spent elsewhere that could have been applied in creating a third dimension. Jigu is selfless and noble, matched by the callous and heedless international authorities represented by Boris Stout. They acquit themselves well, but the relationships lack intricacy.
Which isn’t to say that the tone of the film is entirely monochrome: Kim makes room for humour and action alongside the drama. Much like another Korean blockbuster 'The Host', the first half hour of the film is actually very funny, and this slowly gives way to the more solemn elements of the script, before becoming downright grim. I’d have loved it to sustain a little comedy throughout the film like Moss, but it’s a tough trick to pull off and there’s no shame in sticking to one tone for each act.
'Flu' is not only comparable to 'The Host' in its tone but also in the fact that the flu isn’t the central concern of the movie, like the monster isn’t the central concern of 'The Host'. What’s being explored is the interaction between institutions and the individuals they affect. The political sphere is shown to be indifferent to the actual threats or suffering of the people - instead its interest is in the perception of threats and suffering. The military are shown lacking the capacity to engage with the world through anything other than all-or-nothing protocols and ultimata. The crisis also doesn’t change characters, it magnifies their essential characteristics.
The intertitle at the start of the movie proclaims that 'Flu' is ‘not based on a true story’. Rather than being a glib joke, it eschews believability in the action and more scientifically convenient parts of the film to emphasise the human drama and the warnings about the institutions which are designed to protect us but necessarily limit our agency. 'Flu' is a clever and worthwhile film in its subtext, but it does tend to hammer its point home with repetition and unsubtle characters. The general tension and action within scenes is well realised however, and it still proves an entertaining and sometimes shocking movie. Don’t forget to stick around for the mid-credits scene at the end.
'Flu' premiered in the UK at the London Korean Film Festival. The film is out now in UK cinemas, through .