Korean virus disaster flick has Cannes reaching for its masks

Korean virus disaster flick has Cannes reaching for its masks

Yim Si-wan, from left, Lee Byung-hun, director Han Jae-rim, and Song Kang-ho pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘Emergency Declaration’ at the 74th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, July 16. AP-Yonhap

Cannes was shaken Friday by a South Korean virus flick about a bio-terrorist attack on a passenger plane.

Eerily evocative of the ongoing COVID pandemic, “Emergency Declaration” by director Han Jae-rim tells the story of a vengeful biochemist spreading a deadly mutant corona-like virus on an aircraft.

As passengers start dying messily, police on the ground scramble for solutions.

Critics at the thriller’s first screening instinctively adjusted their masks ― which are mandatory during Cannes screenings ― as they watched the fictional, airborne virus spread death through the plane.

But while the actual coronavirus pandemic loomed large during the filming of “Emergency Declaration”, it was never meant to be its theme. “It’s not ‘COVID, The Movie,'” director Han insisted.

“When we prepared for the movie, there was no Covid-19. We knew SARS, but nobody was talking about coronavirus,” he told AFP.

“At one level, it’s an action movie, I wanted to make it entertaining,” he said. “But I also wanted to show how people react when they are confronted with a catastrophe.”

Fast-paced action sequences and a tight storyline make the movie’s 147 minutes fly by, with Han saying he aimed to make sure that “the situation is shown in a very realistic way” without sliding into panic-inducing “cliches”.

For cabin scenes with the aircraft in tailspin, the crew built a rotating cylinder, with camera operators filming inside, strapped tight into rigs. “That is something that even Hollywood doesn’t often do,” Han said.

Many scenes are filmed with handheld cameras so “viewers get the full experience inside the plane, and are not just distant spectators,” he added.

Humanity makes progress

Han goes further, exploring fear, cowardice and selfishness sparked by the virus crisis, but also bravery, solidarity and self-sacrifice.

“Some are cowards, some run away, but you can also see that, despite everything, humanity makes progress because there are always people with courage,” Han said.

Filming, which took place entirely during the pandemic, was briefly interrupted in the summer of 2020 when there was a virus scare over one of the actors who was in contact with a positive case, but eventually tested negative.

“In the beginning I thought COVID might help viewers to really immerse themselves in the film,” lead actor Lee Byung-hun told AFP. But as the pandemic spread, he began to worry.

“When reality gets more powerful than fiction, the film’s force can be diminished. But now I realize that any viewer with experience of COVID can plunge into the movie even more intensely,” Lee said.

Apart from Lee, a superstar in Korea but also in Hollywood thanks to “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and “The Magnificent Seven”, the film also features Jeon Do-yeon, who won the best actress award at Cannes in 2007.

Song Kang-ho, another famous Korean actor who sits on the festival’s main jury this year, plays a police chief.

South Korea ― which won the last Palme d’Or in 2019 with Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” ― has a booming film industry notorious for its hard-hitting thrillers and often gore-filled horror flicks.

“Emergency Declaration” premiered out of competition at Cannes, which closes on Saturday. (AFP)

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