'Flu': Korea's Tense, Overwrought Response to 'Contagion'

Directed by: Kim Sung-su; Runtime: 122 minutes
Grade: C

Few natural disasters depicted on film are quite as unsettling as that of a fatal disease, simply because the way it spreads across our interactive, respondent civilization -- and the collapse of social and moral structures that result -- isn't very hard to believe, and because very few of us haven't caught at least some kind of minor illness. With the surge of avian flu cases over the past ten years, it's also no surprise to see a rise in films capturing this brand of hysteria, notably Steven Soderbergh's kinetic and distressingly realistic horror-drama Contagion, which digs into ideas about obtaining medical treatment and potential terrorist agendas amid the crisis. South Korea's Flu (Gamgi), from the filmmaker behind martial-arts epics Musa: The Warrior and The Restless, Kim Sung-su, opts for shallower social remarks in what ultimately transforms into a chaotic, overstuffed facsimile of Western disaster cinema, where its expressive legitimacy -- and lack thereof -- looms in visceral images of epidemic terror and the overwrought human drama quarantined within.

Unlike Soderbergh's film, Flu reveals the disease's origin at the very beginning, where a container of illegal immigrants transported into the South Korean city of Bundang contains a man infected with an aggressive form of the H5N1 flu that kills everyone else in the vessel, though he's unaffected by the illness' symptoms. On another side of the city, a medical research doctor and spread-too-thin mother, Dr. Kim In-hae (Soo Ae), is rescued from an automobile accident by paramedic Kang Ji-goo (Jang Hyuk), who becomes smitten with the beautiful woman despite her sour disposition. As the infected immigrant makes his way through the South Korean city, his illness passes between people, causing a massive and violent outbreak of influenza hallmarked by rashes, fevers, and vomited blood. Kim In-hae, along with just about every other pertinent medical professional in the vicinity, immediately joins the search for a solution once pandemonium -- increasing symptoms, explosions, death -- spreads across the city.

Flu can be easily divided into two clear halves, the gradual spread across the city and the consequences of the contamination, with the first being the more dramatically levelheaded of the two. Writer/director Kim Sung-su can't be faulted for not spending the time to flesh out a mother-daughter bond, a hesitant non-romance with Ji-goo, and how they conflict with the mother's demanding profession while the disease travels in the characters' periphery, though there's nothing remotely novel about the mundane territory of their relationships. They work well enough, though, due to how they move in tandem with the disease's escalation: the daughter's (Park Min-ha) adventurous and attention-deprived nature, which draws Kang Ji-goo's concerned attention, meshes with unsettling images of the virus spreading all around her through coughs, touches, and shared foods. The build-up, leading to the film's initial explosions and the expanses of quarantine tents, lends itself to easy and relatively-positive comparisons to other thrillers based on containing a disease, such as Wolfgang Peterson's Outbreak, while crafting a similar sense of dread around these familiar characters with gritty, harrowing production design.

Once the pandemonium hits full swing, subtle filmmaking and rationality slowly disappear from Flu. Instead of focusing on themes relevant to the spread, Kim Sung-su dials up the tension built around the search for antibodies and the overdone heavy-handed depiction of quasi-martial law during the crisis, resembling an overstated fusion of zombie-apocalypse films in tone (down to the haunting, heavy strumming of a guitar against images of the outbreak reminiscent of Danny Boyle's work). The intensity doesn't know when to stop, and not in a positive way: sub-characters are introduced for the sole purpose of tragic emotional manipulation, essentially fodder for the disease, while it also fully exploits the faint emotional connection to Dr. Kim In-hae's young daughter in the volatile environment. Kim Sung-su wants to provoke with his bleak imagery of this modern-day plague, but he does so at the expense of realism, namely how he gets his characters in and out of the disturbing maze of the quarantine's blood tests, bodybags, and yellow clouds of illness.

Unfortunately, a lot of livewire tension and disquieting imagery -- powered by reputable performances from a cast of largely-unfamiliar faces -- get suppressed by the film's endgame, especially how the situation ultimately resolves with obnoxious political bluster and emotional theatrics. There's simply too much crammed in to appreciate the nuance of human interests of the situation, layered with a poorly-conveyed conspiracy and trigger-happy government attitudes that, despite keeping the pacing moving rather briskly for two-plus hours, appear more interested in one-upping the last scene's intensity in the vein of Hollywood action-thrillers. One could argue that the roundabout way that operations play out in Flu might, feasibly, be a blueprint of what'd happen in an extreme case of exposure to a contagious disease, including outside intervention. However, the details in which everything rapidly spirals out of control don't ring true enough to be taken seriously, something that this type of film needs once the warning tape goes up and the clock starts ticking towards doomsday.

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