Director – Han Jae-rim – 2021 – South Korea – 147m
A rogue biochemist smuggles a deadly virus onto a commerical flight and releases it, leaving those on board fighting for survival– from the London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) which runs in cinemas from Wednesday, October 19th to Sunday, October 30th
At the same time as his wife has had enough and decides to fly off to Hawaii on her own for a break, Police Sgt. Koo (Song Kang-ho from Parasite, 1019; Snowpiercer, 2013; Memories Of Murder, 2003; all Bong Joon ho) finds himself investigating an upload to the internet which is probably a hoax in which a man threatens a terrorist attack on a plane. He tracks this man to his apartment from which the open door emits the smell of putrefaction. A search of the premises reveals a corpse sealed in polythene who has died of burst blood vessels caused by a virus.
Meanwhile at Incheon Airport, the man, Ryu Jin-seok (Yim Si-wan, singer of huge K-pop band KZ-A) has a run in with a booking agent who won’t tell him what the busiest route is, insulting her. Next, he enters the toilets to open and insert a phal into his armpit but is spotted from a cubicle by young girl Soo-min (Kim Bo-min) using the wrong toilets. Her father (Lee Byung-hun from The Man Standing Next, Woo Min-ho, 2020; The Fortress, Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2017; The Age Of Shadows, Kim Jee-woon, 2016) finds her and takes her away before anything bad happens. But Jin-seok follows them, harrasses them and asks questions impinging on their privacy.
Ascertaining their destination is Honolulu, Ryu books himself onto the next Honolulu flight. When the girl’s father later spots Jin-seok on the plane his suspicions are aroused. Meanwhile, it turns out that the father and one of the pilots have a personal history – which will come into play later on.
On learning the named suspect had boarded the plane for Honolulu, Sgt. Koo knows he has to save his wife, but all he can do is limited to his activity on the ground while the drama plays out in the air.
With the flight well under way, Jin-seok visits the on-board passenger toilet, opens his armpit and scatters the phial’s contents. The next person to use the toilet beats the little girl to it. “You’re a lucky girl,” Jin-seok tells her. The other is not so fortunate. Soon he’s spurting blood and quite literally bursting an eyeball and – despite the presence of a doctor from among the passengers – is soon dead on the floor.
Thereafter, with the villain unleashing the virus with no plans to come out alive, the narrative switches to the questions of how the passengers are going to survive the outbreak and whether or not the plane will be allowed to land – it’s refused by Japan (with warning shots from fighter planes) and there’s a likelihood the same will happen in Korea where there’s a national debate between those who don’t want the plane to land because of the infection risk and those that do because they think a solution can be found.
This extends to the plane itself, with all aboard eventually and heroically deciding not to land for the good of everyone else in Korea, a concept near-unthinkable in a British or US disaster movie (although the passengers in historically based, drama-doc United 93, Paul Greengrass, 2006, decide to overpower Islamist terrorists in a move likely to crash the plane – but that’s a very different situation when the passengers all expect to die whatever happens). On the ground, Sgt Koo even takes it upon himself to inject the virus so that the antidote can be tested to see if it works.
There are also echoes of Sully (Clint Eastwood, 2016) in the pilot’s attempt to land the plane safely under conditions where the aviation authorities consider in unfeasible but the pilot judges it differently, in the current case when the plane is travelling too fast and the runway is too short. And a further subplot has a government minister (Jeon Do-yeon from Beasts Clawing At Straws, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020; The Housemaid, Im Sang-soo, 2010) doing her best to resolve the situation.
Overall, in terms of sheer thriller, action, drama, adventure, or indeed a disaster movie involving aircraft it’s hard to think of a better or more enjoyable film. Yim is particularly good as the creepy, loner villain, smiling softly as her explains to a horrified fellow traveller that he never planned any way out of this situation for himself. The character here feels far more believable (and is therefore far more dramatically effective) than the usual stereotypes found in this sort of film.
The film was shot before the global pandemic and while it doesn’t really offer any new perspectives on viral outbreaks, it also doesn’t make any serious mistakes or omissions that would render the narrative unbelievable.
Emergency Declaration plays in the London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) which runs in cinemas from Wednesday, October 19th to Sunday, October 30th
London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) calendar
Official Selection, Competition, Actor Focus – Lee Jung-jae, Documentary Competition, Film Maker Focus – Cinematographer Mark Lee, Classics Restored, Halloween Horror Special