Published Aug 29, 2013It finally happened: South Korea has made its own Roland Emmerich-style, epic disaster movie. While many of his countrymen display an aptitude for finding a caustic bent in familiar formulas, Kim Sung-su is perfectly content to play for the cheap seats.
The director of Musa the Warrior has built a broad crowd-pleaser that taps into a very specific cultural fear. Here's how you know a country takes airborne illnesses extremely seriously: contrary to customary caveats, The Flu commences with the disclaimer: "This film is not based on real life events." Clearly, a viral epidemic is not to be joked about in the land of a thousand vengeance films.
Though it shares superficial subject matter with Contagion, this amiable four-quadrant lob from Korea's burgeoning blockbuster factory has little else in common with Soderbergh's clever clinical thriller, hewing closer to the highly destructive event films of the aforementioned duke of blow-'em-up-but-save-the-dog bombast.
To appease the multiplex deities, any humanity-threatening entertainment offering must come with some form of romantic entanglement. Eager to adhere, The Flu (after establishing that shipping sick people in cargo containers is bad) wastes no time setting up a knight in shining armour scenario, only now we've come far enough (in many countries, at least) that the damsel in distress is a top scientist at the CDC charged with saving millions. However, she still needs the help of a good man and our tenacious doctor's precocious daughter is on hand to fill the helpless female role.
Our self-sacrificing prince appears in the form of Ji-goo, a charming rescue worker who falls for a lady he frees from a dangerous car wreck. In an effort to score a date, he retrieves her possessions afterhours and ends up meeting his infatuation's daughter. When the virus brought over by a metal container full of (now deceased) illegal immigrants begins to spread so rapidly that the city's infrastructure is destabilized within hours, Ji-goo takes it upon himself to keep the little girl safe and reunite her with her mommy.
To facilitate the obligatory happy ending, by means of an antivirus, there's a survivor immune to the quick-killing flu. The search for this little boy jockeys for time with scenes of Ji-goo and the girl, her mother, the other CDC doctors, the gangsters responsible for the human trafficking and, eventually, a panel of government officials and a somewhat sinister UN representative from the U.S.
It's hard to care about all of these characters at once, especially when the focus is so clearly on the romance angle — the politicians are merely present to brashly magnify the film's blatant government distrust and damnation of bureaucracy while inserting a side-agenda of sneaky patriotic chest-thumping. Being a South Korean production, The Flu is a little harsher than the American peers it's emulating and is more concerned with getting its medical faux-facts straight and political anxieties to the forefront.
This means that the regular nipple-chaffing sympathy-milking (we're hardwired as a species to respond to a little girl crying for her mother) and irrational dramatic gestures, not to mention conveniences, are broken up with a little barbed wire wrestling, graphic blood puking and the demonization of most authority figures, as well as their unquestioning servants, as callous death merchants.
Comprised of these components, The Flu is often unbearably saccharine, but coasts by on the charm and dedication of its cast. The result is so moderately proficient that it's almost a shame Emmerich's hilarious naivety and massive budget weren't in the mix — those special effects are pretty spotty and the movie could use a few more laughs. (CJ Entertainment)