Plagues unleashed upon a populace – often resulting in zombification – tend to be used as allegories of socio-cultural change in premiere examples of the horror genre, such as those by George A. Romero. Yet the realities of an incurable disease (sans monsters) are equally as horrific as such narratives edge ever-closer to a world that has experienced a variety of influenza pandemics. The 1995 thriller Outbreak, or more recently Steven Soderbergh’s critically acclaimed Contagion in 2011, emphasize the importance of following protocol and the cooperation of pharmaceutical companies in preserving the human race from deadly viruses. Less science-fiction, more science-fact.
Deranged (연가시) is writer/director Park Jeong-woo’s (박정우) attempt at conveying the brutal fury of a rampant epidemic on Korean soil, and he does an excellent job of ramping up the tension and suspense to convey the fear and panic of the country through one man’s attempt to save his family. While plot holes and the suspension of disbelief are occasionally distracting, the conjugation of skilled directing with the effective editing and musical score make Deranged a highly compelling and entertaining disaster film.
Suffering financial hardships due to terrible stock advice from his cop-brother Jae-pil (Kim Dong-wan (김동완), father-of-two Jae-hyeok (Kim Myeong-min (김명민) must perform all manner of services to keep his family afloat. Yet the pharmaceutical company Jae-hyeok works for has been reduced to little more than an administrative branch, and with little room for promotion and bills mounting, the pressure is becoming intense. As news reports begin broadcasting the mysterious deaths of people throughout the country, the authorities are at a loss to explain the phenomenon – what is known, however, are that the victims suffer an unquenchable thirst before death. As the affliction spreads akin to an epidemic, Jae-hyeok begins noticing the symptoms of the illness within his family, forcing him and Jae-pil to set aside their differences and race against time to find a cure before it’s too late.
Deranged is largely a success due to the well-balanced script, which focuses on the characterisation of those affected whilst never losing sight of the national scale of the event. In depicting scenes of government officials and scientists scrambling to do something – anything – to halt the spread of the epidemic and generally making terrible decisions, writer/director Park Jeong-woo consistently places the ramifications of such verdicts on the nuclear family at the center of the narrative, intelligently constructing reasons for deviating away from the central protagonists yet providing further impetus. As such, the removal of cell phones from the infected to halt criticism on social networks may well be in the government’s favour, but the lack of communication with loved ones makes the situation unbearably intense and emotional for those afflicted. Park Jeong-woo also never allows the stakes to be forgotten, skillfully constructing horrific sequences of mass suicide as well as more intimate individual death scenes, wonderfully edited to provide riveting-but-brief glimpses of the horror yet still allows enough mystery to compel audiences for more.
Such sequences would be meaningless without the attention bestowed upon Jae-hyeok, his wife Kyeong-soon (Moon Jeong-hee (문정희) and their two children. Jae-hyeok is, at least initially, an unlikeable protagonist as he continually praises those taking advantage of his financial situation yet vents his frustrations on his innocent family. However as the situation escalates the universal theme of a father desperately attempting to protect his family is fully exploited, and as such his character flaws tend to fall to the wayside. While somewhat limited in the role of wife and mother, Kyeong-soon also personifies the protective mother and her inner conflict of desire vs. responsibility is equally as compelling as Jae-hyeok’s race against time.
What makes Deranged stand out against other examples of the genre is the social commentary, which is equal parts subtle and heavy-handed. As is usually the case, money and greed are vital issues within the narrative both at personal and governmental levels; however what is interesting about Deranged is the way in which it is linked to suicide. It is no secret that Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, yet it’s a social theme that is rarely interrogated cinematically. With Deranged, director Park Jeong-woo specifically links money with suicide, squarely positioning capitalist greed and the desire for commodities as the source of horror in Korean society. Sequences in which the populace race desperately to kill themselves are as horrifying as they are senseless, with the anguish of those attempting to stop them keenly felt. The epidemic, the director posits, is greed.
In terms of performance, Kim Myeong-min as financially-challenged Jae-hyeok is very much the center of the film. He is an ‘action hero father’, a man willing to do everything to save his family whether from monetary woes or the sweeping epidemic. What he seemingly can’t do is show affection to his family, making the protagonist quite unfavourable particularly in the first act. Kim Myeong-min is highly competent in conveying such frustrations throughout, from his subservient role with superiors to venting annoyance to family and friends, however his rather unemotional behaviour with wife Kyeong-soon detracts from the urgency his mission as family saviour should contain.
Ironically it is Jae-hyeok’s long-suffering wife, played by Moon Jeong-hee, that provides the heart of the film due to her close relationship with the children and her internal conflict of being strong for their sake. While she occasionally slightly overacts, Moon Jeon-hee’s emotive style of acting contributes greatly to convey the severity of events and provides a much greater sense of the importance of love than her co-star. In many respects, it is Moon Jeong-hee’s performance that not only conveys the morality of the narrative but is also the most prominent in the film.
As cop Jae-pil, and his scientist wife Yeon-joo, Kim Dong-wan (김동완) and Lee Honey (이하늬) perform competently despite their secondary supporting roles. They seem to exist within the film largely to allow the narrative to explore the proceedings within law enforcement and laboratories, acting as a moral compass within each institution that is heard but ignored. As such they are highly effective in providing information and outrage in equal measure, as well as in halting contrivances that would glaringly exist without their inclusion. Although somewhat limited, each actor performs well and help to spur the narrative forward at a thrilling pace.
A compelling and highly entertaining science-fiction/horror blend, Deranged is a success due to the emphasis on characterisation and a fear that is much more based in reality than imagination. While certain plot holes appear, the directing, editing and musical score combine to produce a great thriller underpinned by a keen socio-cultural message, making Deranged one of the better disaster films to emerge from the Korean film industry.