With the outbreaks of several different strains of influenza over the past few years, the epidemic disaster movie has gained traction in cinemas internationally. The all-too-real dangers of a new, incurable disease ravaging a population tap into social anxieties in a palpable fashion, also providing opportunities for governmental criticism. 2012’s Deranged (연가시) was a highly enjoyable B-movie that explored such concepts with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility, in part highlighting the corruption of pharmaceutical companies. 2013, meanwhile, sees the release of a more serious endeavour in the form of The Flu (감기).
From beginning to end, The Flu is a poor film. Featuring an overabundance of wafer-thin and poorly conceived characters, gaping plot holes and over-zealous nationalism, the film is a disappointment in almost every respect. While the scale of certain sets – and one or two shocking revelations – are impressive, The Flu is an incredibly naive portrayal of disease containment and fails to generate the necessary tension to be engaging or entertaining.
When a container transporting citizens from Hong Kong to Korea is opened, the traffickers are shocked to find everyone dead inside. Everyone, that is, except one – a young man carrying a mutated form of the influenza virus. Evading the criminals, the young man runs into Seoul satellite city Bundang, unleashing his disease upon the unsuspecting populace. As people begin to die at a ferociously quick pace, doctor Kim In-hye (Soo-ae (수애) is called in to help with the situation. Yet in doing so she leaves her daughter Mir-re (Park Min-ha (박민하) alone, who finds protection under emergency service worker Kang Ji-goo (Jang Hyeok (장혁). However as the crisis escalates and Bundang is locked down, all the citizens are placed together in quarantine camps, and the situation rapidly goes from bad to worse.
When people are dying in scores, it is pivotal to have a central cast of engaging protagonists. Their struggle to survive against the odds forms the heart of the epidemic/disaster film, and the drama and tension derived from their actions imbues the story with conviction and excitement. In this sense, writer/director Kim Seong-su (김성수) fails spectacularly as the characterisation is woeful throughout The Flu. Korean media has long had problems in representing career women and single mothers positively, and both sexist stereotypes are merged into the character of In-hye. What should be a strong, intelligent, independent woman is reduced to a hostile ice queen whose selfishness has few boundaries. Similarly daughter Mir-re, while very cute, is precocious and insubordinate. As such, both must be ‘saved’ by white knight emergency worker Ji-goo, who as well as consistently reminding everyone how noble he is, displays compassion that far exceeds the realm of believability. Yet the narrative is further populated with evermore one-dimensional stereotypes, featuring comedic sidekicks, blustering politicians, a revenge-seeking brother, faceless soldiers suddenly provided with melodrama, and so forth. Not only is it a huge waste of acting talent – notably Soo-ae, Ma Deong-seok and Park Jeong-min in this regard – but it also sucks any impetus from proceedings, making it difficult to care if any of them survive.
The story itself is also often ludicrous. The film opens with Ji-goo rescuing In-hye who has, rather inconveniently, driven into a cavern that apparently exists on a main highway. The emergency worker also later leaves the sleeping Mir-re on a bench while he races up and down several escalators to save a woman in danger of falling, rather than to call the person nearest to her for help. Such acts of wanton stupidity litter the narrative and seem to build in absurdity, particularly so during the overt nationalistic agenda throughout the film. According to The Flu Korea is a country under siege, ranging from diseases from China through to American political domination. American interference in Korean politics certainly exists, however within The Flu director Kim exaggerates the issue to such a degree that he portrays the Korean president as a powerless, idealistic victim, betrayed by his ministers who opt to follow an American politician insistent on wiping out the entire population of Bundang. Terrible acting aside, the patriotic grandstanding that occurs during such scenes are beyond ridiculous, while the decisions they execute are so illogical it beggars belief.
Ironically such policies enforced by the bizarre government create some of the more visually stirring moments within the film. The internment camps feature some interesting scenes despite the rather obvious budget limitations, while the disposal of the dead is particularly striking. The riots by Bundang citizens over their treatment in the camps are also impressive in scale, although the motivations and subsequent melodrama are so naive and silly that they render the spectacle of the situation redundant.
The Flu is an attempt to produce a more serious approach to the epidemic disaster film, yet writer/director Kim Seong-su fails to make the film engaging and entertaining in almost every respect. Featuring wafer-thin stereotype characters the film is huge waste of acting talent, while the escalating acts of stupidity committed by them quickly enters the realm of absurdity. With huge plot holes in conjunction with incredibly over-zealous nationalism, The Flu is a blockbuster to avoid.