Epidemic movies have been a reoccurring topic since the seventies. “The Andromeda Strain” brought a clinical, docudrama approach; “Outbreak” introduced 90’s film-going crowds to possible worldwide obliteration by germs and Soderbergh’s “Contagion” gave us a cold, unflinching approach showing the fragility of humans. The most recent take on a viral disaster is 2013’s “Flu” directed by the eclectic Korean helmer, Kim Sung-su. Leaving the cold, depression of “Contagion” behind, “Flu” feels more along the lines of a subdued Roland Emmerich undertaking.
After a cutesy iLoveCinema company credit and a text card saying “This film is not based on real events” we begin with a “SPEED” type of introductory action scene. Rescue worker Kang Ji-goo (Jang Hyuk) repels into a sinkhole to rescue a newswoman Kim In-hae (Soo Ae) as her car is suspended by some wires it became entangled in. With a last minute leap as the car plummets they start bickering immediately. Moments later we find out that there was something very important in her car that she needed and was not able to get because she was pulled out. Around the same time, a truckload of illegal immigrants shows up at its destination in Bundang with all of them dead from a strange virus except one. He escapes into the city and infects everyone as he is the carrier. As the city goes into lockdown to suppress the spread of the virus, which is identified as the Avian flu, Kang must find and rescue Kim and her toddler daughter Kim Mi-reu (adorably played by Park Min-ha) before they fall victim to the flu or the military’s aggressive need to stop the spread at any cost.
Although it is not Oscar material “Flu” tries harder than your average American summer blockbuster. Director Kim Sung-su does a genuinely effective job of invoking fear with some disconcerting imagery and onscreen actions. During the obligatory “ransack the local grocery store for supplies” scene, it feels raw and truly chaotic without too much embellishment. Upon entering the quarantine camps there are many shots of people doing anything they can to cover up their sickness to prevent from being quarantined. The depicted actions of the military are the scenes that seemed to have resonated the longest with me. During one scene, an officer is seen zipping up a body bag on someone who is not dead yet. His explanation of this to a witness is that they will be dead soon anyways. Many of the officers take the law into their own hands in dealing with unruly individuals. The high ranking officials and politicians who have been quarantined make decisions based on cold, survivalist reactions with little thought put towards those who are not sick but still in the city. Kim also lingers his camera on the sick to see their suffering The spread of this is also shown is several montage sequence of people coughing, touching things and spreading the virus. There is a definite vision here which can be demonstrated in the many sweeping city shots of chaos. The slick production values allow the city of Bundang to be seen as a character itself. The convincing scenes of panic and chaos shown in these wide, comprehensive shots show the effects of rioting and panic, much like a wound on a body. Also upping the dramtaic ante is Park Min-ha’s cuteness factor. She might be one of the most delightfully sympathetic kids in a movie I have ever seen.
While the film does a lot more good than bad there are still a couple of hiccups that bring the film down a tad. For one, the characters interconnectedness is too convenient at times resulting in characters being able to find each other rather easily in a chaotic big city where law and order is falling apart around them. This rather egregiously occurs while Kang is looking for Mir near the end. Also, while at times there is some pretty impressive CGI, it can be dodgy at times making scenes feel chintzier than they should. These are not huge detriments but do stick out from the stellar production.
The 2.35:1 widescreen image is about as good as standard def will look. Viewed on a 50” screen the image looks clear without much digitalization. Black levels falter a tad, turning a dark gray however the is no noticeable crushing. Daytime scenes along with the spanning cityscape shots show a lot of detail and even a little depth. Banding and jaggies are kept to a minimum and the color reproduction is accurate.
The Korean and English 5.1 Dolby Digital lossy tracks equal the standard def video in extending to the upper reaches of efficiency. Dialogue in the Korean and English tracks are clear and accurate. Bass is present throughout and rumbles appropriately when needed. All speakers are utilized nicely during scenes of intense action.
The special features are small but interesting. In a Behind the Scenes featurette, we get to see the director Kim Sung-soo talk about his ideas for the film. Also talked about are the use of digital effects to change the normal looking city footage into a place of urban destruction. Standard interviews with cast members are peppered throughout. Lastly are several deleted scenes.
All aggrandizing aside, this is how these types of movies should be made. “Flu” is a worthy example of how to make an entertaining blockbuster with some dramatic weight. The characters are lively without being cartoonish which helps immensely in a production like this. There are no overblown action pieces which feel out of place. All the action is relevant and tempered. The acting is above average, thanks to an endearing effort by the actress who played little Kim Mi-reu. For standard definition, the disc quality is a good as you can hope for. Recommended to fans of disaster films and those who are interested in what modern day foreign blockbusters are doing these days.