Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | The Flu (2013)

Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Jang Hyuk, Soo Ae, Park Min-ha, Yoo Hai-jin, Ma Dong-seok, Lee Hee-jun, Cha In-pyo

Ten years after Director Kim made Please Teach Me English, he emerged from the shadows to unleash his most commercial effort to date, the disaster blockbuster, The Flu. Admittedly, this was around the time I had become introduced to the director; even though I had seen Beat quite a few years prior, I just was unaware of who he was and hadn't made the connection at this point in time. In his decade of absence from film, Kim dedicated his time to teaching more extensively at university to aspiring young visionaries. Still, the world definitely hankering for a comeback, and while stylistically, this may not be what the diehard fans of the esteemed director were waiting for, The Flu came out swinging at the box office, and was smashing success for the team. Regardless of the popularity or the anticipation of one of Korea's film giants returning to directing, how does the quality of this piece hold up? Upon revisiting this one, which I liked before, and living in a post-COVID world, let's just say how this all unfolds onscreen, I found it all the more harrowing and challenging to watch this go around.

The plot is simple and expected of a work in this genre. A child from another country is discovered in a shipping crate full of dead bodies, which are all immigrants who were smuggled into South Korea. He is the only one alive, and when that crate is opened, all hell breaks loose as a deadly flu virus begins to engulf and infect the citizens of the city. A young girl played by Park Min-ha, who is ultra adorable, is safe with a local firefighter (Jang Hyuk), who had recently saved the little girl's mother (Soo Ae) from a car accident. Soo Ae plays a doctor who specializes in unexpected virus outbreaks, which she does. So it is self-evident how this all plays out, but that being said, the film is very well made, the performances are wonderful and the fluff that builds up before the disaster befalls our characters is charming and easy to digest. This is all a tried and true formula for films of this nature, especially Korean disaster films. However, what sets this apart from other films of this nature is the grim reality of how shadily and piss-poorly (I'm wording this well) the government takes this situation into their hands. Frankly, it becomes a terrifying social commentary on how quickly society can collapse under extreme circumstances, especially when military forces sweep in and take action. Things get quite bloody, and I will not spoil anything, but some of the images and set pieces in the final act are so haunting and will stick with me for as long as possible. I hadn't forgotten certain disturbing scenes in the ten years since I had last watched this.

All of the scenes building up to the outbreak, once it hits that mass level of spread and the public hysteria resulting from this unexpected disaster, are very formulaic and perhaps a bit too cutesy for some. Still, I found the build-up to be charming and helps build up our appreciation and understanding of the main characters before everything falls to the wayside. The relationship between Jang Hyuk and Park Min-ha is so sweet and good-natured you can't help but smile. Soo Ae always does well with these types of roles, and she is extremely believable as a doctor, but also, in addition to her calm and calculated demeanor, she has the sensitivity and compassion of a mother and one who has become desperate to see her child safe and sound. Many moments towards the latter part of the film take you on an emotional journey, and while the film is big and loud, it always keeps the humanist element at heart, making for a successful journey. Again, after Covid decimated so many across the globe those few short years ago, a lot of my viewing this time around just felt surreal as I felt like I had experienced so much of this film happening to those around me. Sure, the military wasn't gunning down people left and right here, but I had friends send me pictures from their phones of armed soldiers preventing them from leaving their homes and neighborhoods. Some of the stuff in The Flu that felt like a bit of a stretch ten years ago suddenly seemed too real. It's no wonder they took the pandemic so serious, when this movie worked so well as a primer.

The things in this that don't work as well for me would be the overall look of things. I love the production value, and the sense of scale gets epic and haunting, but this has that glossy and very quick-cutting docu feel. A lot of times, I just sighed as it all felt so uninspired. It's a shame considering how much of an eye Kim Sung-soo has, and his sense of stylistic shots have become almost unmatched in contemporary Korean cinema. Still, that being said, it does service the story but never leans into a more stylized feeling I thought the film could have benefited from in atmosphere. The images do speak for themselves in the end, but the glossy sheen of the beginning moments just screams unoriginal, and that's unfortunate. It is a film you have to stick with on a visual front to get to the good stuff. Also, I wish there was more of the boy who survives in the shipping crate. He does a fine job; it is just extremely by-the-numbers with what he does for the plot and where his arc goes. Again, it's fine, just extremely predictable and uninspired. I think the film is well-carried by Jang Hyuk, who shows a softer side here, which those who are mostly familiar with his more action-oriented tough guy roles may not expect. He has a great range, so it was nice to see him letting his guard down (pun intended) here. Also, Ma Dong-seok plays a scumbag in this. I love Ma, and he does the good guy bit well, but he makes an excellent and terrifying villain when he plays one from time to time.

In 2024, The Flu is a horrifyingly relevant viewing experience. It was like taking a horrible trip down memory lane, but I cannot sing enough praise to Kim and his team for showcasing the ugly nature of how something like this would and ultimately did play out. I admire this film so much more than I did back in 2013. I liked it then, and some of it still bothers me, but more so in a nitpicking way. It is a tremendous modern disaster film that goes for it in the end. It may not all work, but it hits like a train once that virus begins to tear the country apart. This film will work better for some than others, as is the case for many works of this nature. I, however, can say that I think The Flu is a great film and one that Kim crafted and unleashed onto the world after a decade-long break. Let's just hope he doesn't go into hiding again because his latter-day works are all worthy of praise, as we will see. Highly recommended.

Written by Josh Parmer

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