A medical disaster movie depicting how a South Korean city becomes ground zero for the H5N1 epidemic, “Flu” delivers a transfusion of harrowing realism, government duplicity and dripping sentimentality, suggesting a provincial “World World Z” without zombies. Fully conveying the sudden and unpreventable nature of modern pandemics like SARS, helmer Kim Sung-soo builds white-knuckle tension from images of mass panic. But the story flatlines as the crisis escalates, falling prey to pedestrian human drama and improbable conspiracy subplots. Nevertheless, the pic’s exploitation of collective hypochondriac instincts drove viral sales to 38 territories, as well as healthy local B.O.
Given the subject, comparisons with 2011’s “Contagion” naturally arise, but unlike Soderbergh, Kim is not remotely interested in the procedural aspect of how diseases spread. A closer parallel would be “Deranged” (released a month earlier), sans that Korean disease thriller’s sci-fi elements and noirish plot twists. Kim’s goal is simple: to turn mass hysteria and crowd violence into spectacle. This he achieves with the support of a solid, blockbuster-style production by industry giant CJ Entertainment, though grand setpieces deploying hordes of extras have a generic look that smack of other CJ disaster movies, including “Haeundae,” “The Tower” and uprising epic “May 18.”
The film initially follows a basic but effective arc, starting in Hong Kong, where a freight-load of Southeast Asians are smuggled to South Korea. When the cargo arrives in the residential district of Bundang, Seongnam city, human traffickers Byung-ki (Kim Ki-hyeon) and brother Byung-woo (Lee Sang-yeob) open the door to find a sight more ghastly than the Black Hole of Calcutta. A survivor, Monssai, escapes into the city. Byung-woo becomes violently sick within hours.
On the same day, Emergency Rescue Team officer Ji-gu (Jang Hyuk) enjoys a sticky meet-cute with bossy, histrionic virologist In-hye (Su Ae, vexing) while extracting her from a plummeting car. He later befriends her smarty-pants moppet Mirre (Park Min-ha) and becomes her chaperone of sorts, all the time unaware that she has made contact with Monssai and caught his virus — a mutated form of Avian Flu that kills within 36 hours.
As people drop like flies and the city goes into mass quarantine and lockdown, various expressions of blind fear work on a primal level, while patients’ gross-out symptoms attain a degree of surreal horror. Considerable credit goes to Nam Na-young for superbly paced editing, which splices together disparate crowd scenes from numerous locations while still fostering audience engagement with the personal drama, most of which revolves around Ji-gu and In-hye finding and losing Mirre, ad absurdum. Lee Mo-gae’s lensing shifts sensationally between impressionistic handheld shots of newsreel verisimilitude and bravura camerawork swinging through huge public spaces and hysterical throngs.
Initially, the government’s ruthless containment raises dramatic stakes, but the manner in which foreign powers intervene is impossible to believe. Further straining credibility, the president (Kim Ki-hyeon), who hours ago looked on his citizens as toxic waste, suddenly makes a heroic about-face. Other hiccups become more noticeable in the second half, including the unlikelihood that Ji-gu manages to avoid catching the virus and the fact the American UN advisor speaks with an Aussie accent.
While it’s apt casting for ruggedly handsome Jang to play a stock hero who instinctively leaps to anyone’s aid, Su has a harder time winning audience sympathy. Her In-hye is not a likable person to start with, scoffing at Ji-gu’s advances while taking his kindness for granted. Her subsequent (startlingly guilt-free) tendency to let motherly instincts override professional ethics makes her an even more dubious romantic lead.
As expected of Korean action productions, effects and other tech credits are of a high standard, but nondescript. The only exceptional feature is the unsettling, yet never overwhelming sound mix.