THE FLU is a big-budget Korean pandemic movie about a strain of avian flu that spreads from a container full of dead illegal immigrants to the general population of Bundang, 19 miles from South Korea’s capital, Seoul. It is directed by Kim Sung-soo who gives us bursts of ‘flu vision’ – the screen changes tint to a sickly brown and the action slows down as the germs spread. I’m not sure how scientifically accurate Kim’s depiction of this sort of flu is – symptoms include spots, dizziness, dangling precariously on escalators, coughing up blood and death. Broadly, these pandemics are something to worry about. Old folks (like me) need their flu jabs. Countries need to keep stocks of the antidote and need to keep on top of new strains in order to prevent their spread. Diseases have an awful habit of shifting the goal posts.
THE FLU is worth seeing in conjunction with Steven Soderbergh’s and Scott Burns’ CONTAGION (2011) and Wolfgang Petersen’s OUTBREAK (1995) to observe the difference between Korean and Hollywood takes on the subject. Whilst films don’t always change public opinion, they can bring subjects to our attention in a resonant way and give us a short-hand of understanding.
All these films deal with vulnerabilities in the system. In THE FLU, it is illegal immigration. Health workers can’t screen migrants in containers coming from impoverished communities for diseases. Containers also incubate the strain of flu by an accelerated increase in temperature, warm feverish bodies infect one another in a tin can that retains the external heat. Bad news! In CONTAGION it is about open skies. Westerners travel the world with comparative ease; we can never be sure what they take home. In OUTBREAK it is about broken eco-systems. As we all remember from that trailer – Dustin Hoffman appealing to find that monkey – diseases originate in animals, whose behaviour is altered when food suddenly becomes unavailable and foreign elements are introduced.
As a commercial entity, the Hollywood pandemic film is an ensemble piece. OUTBREAK did give a prominent role to Dustin Hoffman but he was supported by Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Donald Sutherland, Cuba Gooding Jr and Kevin Spacey. No one person will sort out a pandemic, although the adaptation of I AM LEGEND (2007) with Will Smith posited his character as a saviour, the pandemic creating zombies. Generally, it takes a multi-agency response to contain and treat the disease. In most cases, the scientist is the hero, but by no means immune, as Kate Winslet’s character discovered in CONTAGION.
Generally, there is tension between science and the military. THE FLU culminates in fighter jets scrambled towards Bundang and army sniper rifles trained on citizens told not to cross the yellow line. This is also true of OUTBREAK, in which mass extermination is considered an option. Characters are defined by their instruments, so a scientist will want to develop a cure, the military will wish to use arms. Nothing particularly subtle! CONTAGION does at least introduce political elements, the restricted availability of vaccine and the role of the media in misinformation.
The crucial difference is in focus. THE FLU is ostensibly a three character movie; the disease incubates a new nuclear family as it brings together a bravado-fuelled rescue worker, Kang Ji-goo (Jang Hyuk) and a careerist scientist and single mother Kim in-hae (Soo Ae) whose car in the opening minutes is lodged in a hole in the road – a metaphor for her position. Kang just wants to receive some acknowledgement for his efforts, but Kim is upset about the loss of her handbag (‘go back and get it’) and in having her skirt ripped. Kim’s daughter Mirre (Park Min-ha) brings them together, asking Kang to retrieve the handbag – and in so doing Kim’s research – and also getting him to buy her a smoothie. The scenes are broadly comic, defined by heightened reactions that lack nuance. Kang will say ‘what are you worried about, I saved you – and for free’, Kim will feel affronted that the rescue is somehow a personal act. THE FLU delineates between the health service which is only available to those who can afford it and emergency services that free at the point of demand; paying for a service confers on Kim a respectability that Kang does not enjoy.
The one surviving migrant who carries the potential vaccine typically runs away, fearing an authority intolerant of illegal migrants. Characters are generally reduced to a single focus. Mirre discovers him by accident and helps him; as the uncritical child, she is the only one who does not judge. This character wouldn’t be tolerated in an American movie since (sadly) American families indoctrinate their children out of innocence at the youngest possible age; TV plays a role in this.
THE FLU is defined by caricatures, but at its heart it deals with South Korea needing to stand up to its power American ally and having the dignity to do so. The American military advocate containment. They and a selfish man who wants to harvest the vaccine from Mirre’s blood as she develops a resistance to the flu are the nominal villains. Neither values life outside their interest group.
CONTAGION does not caricature its villains so freely; the characters are more nuanced and less prone to hysteria. In both cases though, pandemic movies lead to a defence of values, of what we are not prepared to do to retain our humanity.
THE FLU is filled with anonymous victims, whose lives and suffering are quickly sketched in. American pandemic films maximise emotional responses by giving characters back stories so we feel their loss much more.
Towards the end of THE FLU, the characters are literally dwarfed by the action; it takes a while before director Kim Sung-soo develops tension in which we feel emotionally invested. American films are slightly better at their characters’ super-objectives, ensuring they are adequately intertwined with the bigger story.
The problem with pandemic films is that they deny us the enjoyment of watching characters fight back. Once characters are felled by disease we expect them to die; if they don’t it strikes us as corny – unless a cure has been swiftly provided. Film directors prefer to make zombie movies as a substitute for real pandemics – WORLD WAR Z being the most recent – because we can see movie stars take on zombies in a way that they cannot with a disease. The struggle is viscerally exciting and suspenseful on a scene by scene moment. Zombie movies are covert pandemic movies and deal social divisions that emerge when diseases are made flesh. It is brave of Kim Sung-soo to tackle a disease head on but the movie definitely flags in the second half; it he had used the zombie metaphor he might have entertained us more consistently.
THE FLU is being screened in the 2013 London Korean Film Festival before going on limited UK release on 22 November 2013. Reviewed at Soho Screening Room, London, Thursday 24 October 2013