The symptoms shown at the beginning of South Korean action thriller film “The Flu” are depressing rather than alarming. The symptoms are 1) flat characterization full of bland or annoying characters we do not give a damn about, and 2) heavy-handed thriller plot driven by lots of artificial contrivances, and 3) overbearing melodrama with no solid emotional base, and 4) persistent need to giving ‘touching’ or ‘funny’ moments to lighten up the desperate mood shrouding the characters. If you know well about these symptoms and you are not immune to its cause, I urge you to avoid it for not suffering it for 2 hours.
Its premise will probably remind you of similar films such as “Outbreak”(1995) and “Contagion”(2011). A lethal avian flu virus H5N1 strain is suddenly spread around one urban area, so we get familiar stuffs: the people getting quickly infected one by one, the hospitals full of dying patients, the hysterical and maddening situations inside and outside the quarantined area, and, of course, one desperate attempt to find a cure for saving the day along with lots of people including the main characters.
After showing how the virus happens to be flowed into South Korea during the opening scene(one of illegal immigrant workers sent to South Korea in one container turns out to be a carrier/patient zero), we are introduced to its two main characters through a Meet Cute moment. Kang Ji-goo(Jang Hyeok) is a lifesaver working in Boon-dang area of Seong-nam, one of the satellite cities surrounding Seoul, and he encounters a young doctor named Kim In-hae(Soo-ae) for the first time when he is assigned to save her from her car which is about to fall deep into the underground construction site. He succeeds in saving her in front of a serious danger, but all our lovely doctor cares about are her expensive skirt, which is torn during the process, and her research work in the car.
Although she does not show much gratitude to him, our heroic lifesaver is attracted to her probably because that is what should happen after Meet Cute moment. At her request, he goes down to the crash site and gets her bag containing her work and her cellular phone, and that is how we get another cloying Meet Cute moment. He incidentally gets acquainted with In-hae’s cute little daughter Mir(Park Min-ha), and this sweet girl has no problem at all with getting close to a stranger she has never met before while behaving as cutely as possible as your average movie kid. She seems a bit gloomy when she says her dad left her and her mom several years ago, but don’t worry, folks, because she still looks pretty plucky to melt your soft heart.
Anyway, the story eventually goes into the emergency mode as that unfortunate illegal immigrant in question and other subsequent infected people unintentionally spread the virus all around Boon-dang. The patients get fever along with red spots on their body while coughing a lot during the initial stage, and then they begin to vomit blood before they die within a few days. As soon as Boon-dang is hurled into the pandemonium after the infection crosses the threshold level, it is quickly quarantined by the South Korean government to prevent the spread of the virus, and the national emergency is announced in public as the president and cabinet members and experts try to handle and control this disastrous situation in the underground briefing room.
The movie has a bunch of terrible moments which can happen in such a situation, and some of them are effective as the devices for infusing the plot with more tension and horror. We see lots of people helplessly stuck in the massive quarantine area as harshly regulated by heavily-armed soldiers, and the movie later throws in a horrible moment at the stadium to reveal how much devastating the virus epidemic is and to show how small the individuals in the movie are in front of this big catastrophe. As the situation gets worse and the time is running out, the people in the underground briefing room start to consider a very drastic measure, but the president is strongly against it because, well, there may be a better way to solve the situation.
It could have been a good thriller based on these materials, but, compared to its big scenes, the characters and their drama in the movie are weak and bland to say the least. The relationship between Ji-goo and In-hae feels flat and unconvincing even before the disaster begins, and I began to wonder why they should be the main focus of the story. As a matter of fact, they do not do many things in the story as swept along with others till the climax, and they sometime look pretty unlikable and idiotic while doing what any sensible character will not do in their situation. I know well that Jang Hyeok and Soo-ae are good actors as shown in their previous films, but the lack of the chemistry between them is apparent and it further amplifies this serious weakness of the story.
These two lead actors try their best with their two-dimensional roles, and the same thing can be said about the other actors equally struggling with their one-dimensional roles. While it is disheartening to see the reliable actors like Yoo Hae-jin and Ma Dong-seok being wasted in their respective cardboard roles, it is also depressing to watch young actor Park Min-ha locked in the stereotype role only demanding her to look lost/dying or cry hard when she does not need to look cute and innocent. Her worst moment is involved with her incidental encounter with the patient zero, and, through this unpleasantly cloying moment, the movie almost makes that minor supporting character look like an escaped animal even though it later tries to show some care and respect to him.
Like “Deranged”(2012), another South Korean movie about a deadly epidemic and resulting social panic, “The Flu” reminded me of better movies in its genre while disappointing me a lot. It feels effective at times, but it suffers from its bad screenplay, and it ultimately loses its control amid its frantic moments. After watching “Contagion”, I was scared enough to think twice about washing my hands; after watching “The Flu”, I was annoyed enough to reminisce about how nice it was to have a rest with good movies when I had a cold.