Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Park grounds the film, providing a focal point as the scale of the calamity overwhelms the adult protagonists."

It begins with a cough in the darkness. It ends with barricades, guns and threats of war. In between, there is worse - but that's 'flu for you. It's the risk we all face.

An epidemic movie made in South Korea is a very different proposition from the sort of thing we're used to in the West, whether it's Perfect Sense or 28 Days Later. Hot and humid for much of the year, surrounded by places where humans, pigs and chickens live side by side, its gleaming cities are likely first targets for any major outbreak of disease, and we're still at least five years away from a universal 'flu vaccine. Facing this very real threat, it's unsurprising that the country's filmmakers have no time for the nonsense that Hollywood likes to deliver on this subject. There's melodrama and oodles of sentiment, but the science is (mostly) strong, the protocols realistic, the brutality of its scenario unapologetic.

It begins - or so it would appear - with a crate full of illegal immigrants, a perfect breeding ground for disease. After opening the crate and seeing what lies inside, one of the people smugglers in the northwestern Seoul suburb of Budang-gu develops a cough. There is also a survivor, confused, sick, unable to speak the language, who goes stumbling through the city. Through supermarkets, tube trains, schools, the virus spreads. Before anyone realises the full extent of the danger, people are collapsing in the streets.

Kang Ji-koo (Hyuk Jang) is a rescue worker. One day, he pulls a beautiful young woman out of a hole in the ground and fantasises that she'll fall for him. She doesn't even say "Thank you." She is a doctor, Kim In-hae (played by Soo Ae), and she has other things on her mind, not least how to arrange care for her young daughter, Mi-reu (Park Min-Ha) whilst she deals with an emergency situation at the hospital. When Ji-koo later finds her phone and contacts Mi-reu, he is hoping for a second chance to seduce In-hae. Instead he finds himself forming an unexpected emotional connection just as he is forced to take on the biggest rescue mission of his life.

In both narrative and emotional terms, everything in this film hinges on Park, who was just five years old at the time of filming. There's a long history of obnoxiously mawkish children in disaster movies but Park is something entirely different. Astute, cynical and possessed of a deadpan wit, her Mi-reu effortlessly wins over the audience. As the world around her crumbles into chaos, she's lost, vulnerable, but so is everyone. Park grounds the film, providing a focal point as the scale of the calamity overwhelms the adult protagonists. Her presence, and In-hae's desperate urge to protect her, keep things in perspective as we lurch into scenes of lurid horror.

For those who have thought seriously about what an epidemic might mean - or just watched a lot of films - nothing that happens here will really be surprising, so it's all the more impressive that director Sung-su Kim manages to make it feel surprising to the characters and carry us along with them. Much of this is accomplished by lurching between claustrophobic spaces where our heroes have little information and huge, exposed areas where they can see more than they ever wanted to. The greys and yellows underscoring the colour palette recall the hues of decaying flesh even as the deaths themselves are, spitting blood aside, quite understated. Kim's interest is in existential horror, the awareness of the threat of destruction and what it might do to us. Although the latter part of the film founders on twee political posturing, it retains an underlying power that will have viewers shaking. You'll certainly be thinking about it next time you get a fever.

Reviewed on: 15 Nov 2013
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Flu packshot
A terrifying epidemic threatens Seoul.
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Director: Kim Sung-su

Writer: Kim Sung-su, Lee Yeong-jong

Starring: Soo Ae, Hyuk Jang, Park Min-Ha, Andrew William Brand, Cha In-Pyo, Yoo Hae-jin

Year: 2013

Runtime: 122 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea


London Korean 2013

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