It’s hard to describe Kim Sung-su’s epidemic thriller – out now on DVD here in the UK – without mentioning other well-known entries in the sub-genre. Outbreak (1995) and Steven Soderbergh’s skin-crawling Contagion (2011) are obvious touchstones for this action-packed tale of a lethal infection running rampant in urban South Korea. Whereas western outings have updated the classic disaster movie formula, Flu (2013) distinguishes itself by embracing a slightly more sci-fi bent with its near-future setting and dystopian milieu. It makes for gripping viewing, despite being hampered by a wealth of ridiculous plot contrivances and a tone so erratic it can feel like two separate movies.
One strand of Kim’s epidemic drama is a love story that begins when dedicated rescue worker Kang Ji-koo (Jang Hyuk) plucks beautiful medical scientist, Kim In-hae (Soo Ae) from a precarious car accident. He is immediately smitten, whilst she is more worried about the data left trapped in the now wrecked car. In an attempt to impress her, Kang returns to the car and retrieves the data, passing it, in turn, to Kim’s precocious daughter Mirre (Park Min-ha). Meanwhile, a cargo container filled with illegal immigrants brings a mutated strain of H5N1 into Bundang, where it spreads like wildfire. As the government tries to control the outbreak, Kang takes it upon himself to look after Mirre and return her to her mother, who must lead the fight against the deadly virus before it has a chance to travel further afield.
It’s the numerous dualities at work within Kim’s Flu that so often threaten to derail it. On one hand it’s an expansive and politically-tinged Asian thriller, on the other it’s a sentimental story of a single would-be family. There’s mawkish romance on one side, genocide and police brutality on the other; light-hearted one moment, horrifically nerve-wracking the next. The thing is, that even in the midst of US intervention planning to nuke the city – much like the shadowy council in Avengers Assemble (2012) – it’s hard to take Flu that seriously. The incredibly dark subject matter, feels more like background to the thrills; it is far more entertaining than it is thought-provoking. Where the film really does falter, however, is in the construction of its narrative.
Most audience members will have rolled their eyes at characters in a horror movie behaving in irrational ways in order to ramp up the tension levels. Yet in Flu, almost everyone makes ridiculous decisions constantly. For a character so devoted to rescuing Mirre, Kang leaves her alone in some inconceivably dangerous situations. It reaches a point during the climax where audiences could be forgiven for shouting at the screen in frustration. Still, all of this does serve to heighten the stakes and regardless of their idiotic behaviour, the central trio do remain empathetic throughout. Kim could have made something sharper, tighter and all the more interesting, but what we get is consistently exciting nonetheless.