Trolling Netflix.ca for something interesting, I stumbled upon a real apocalyptic gem, FLU (2013). This Korean film (with English subtitles) tells the story of an outbreak of a deadly new strain of avian influenza that appears certain to infect 50% of the population and kill most of them. It’s contained in Bundang, a suburb of Seoul, but for how long? Can it be contained, or will it unleash horror on the rest of the world? Can it be cured before it kills 200,000 people?
FLU centers on three major characters–Dr. Kim, her daughter Mir, and an emergency response worker, Jigu. Dr. Kim is a busy single mom focused on herself and her daughter. Mir is a precocious, self-sufficient (and completely adorable) little girl. Jigu is an idealistic emergency response worker who believes giving to others is the noblest thing one can do. When Jigu rescues Kim after an accident, she treats him selfishly, but he’s in love. That initial connection creates a spark that develops the relationship between these three people throughout the film.
Meanwhile, a group of Indonesian refugees, transported to Korea in a shipping container, bring avian flu into the country. The container became an incubator for a mutated form of the virus that makes it extremely transmissible and deadly to humans. One of the coyotes who’d brought these people in catches the bug and begins spreading it. One of the refugees, who’d fought off the virus and therefore carries antibodies that can shortcut a vaccine, escapes and now must be found.
Westerners are likely to find the acting a bit over the top, but I really came to care about the characters, who were very well developed. This is what WWZ could have been instead of offering up Brad Pitt and his cardboard cutout family. WWZ was successful in my view because for the first time, we got treated to a zombie film with a real budget and that had spectacular action scenes. Where it failed, and failed miserably, was in phoned-in development of characters whom we didn’t care if they made it or not.
FLU delivers character in spades. They really come across as flesh and blood people, and we care what happens to them. Instead of throwaway scenes intended to say, “Look, this doctor loves her daughter, okay, got it? Let’s move on,” the film is rich with little details that makes these people and their relationships seem real. These days, such character development is rare in Hollywood–I’ve lived long enough to see TV go from sucking to being interesting, and movies go from interesting to suck.
The outbreak is gripping. Fans of apocalyptic movies get everything they’d expect to see in a movie about an epidemic–a horrifying disease, vast quarantine camps, soldiers fighting panicked mobs, stadiums turned into burning burial pits. The outbreak, and the characters’ critical role in it, happen with steadily rising stakes and plenty of action.
Now to the realism. I thought the human and organizational response to an epidemic was fairly spot on. The mob has an evildoer in its midst, but otherwise, they’re just terrified people looking for salvation. The country’s leaders get plenty of screen time, and we get to see inside their decision-making. We get to see what quarantine would probably actually be like–false promises, faceless bureaucracy, exhausted workers, separation, bad decisions, terror at seeing loved ones taken away to die.
Otherwise, however, there was a lot that wasn’t realistic. If a virus spread this fast, by the time Bundang was quarantined, it would have been too late. Antibodies don’t make a cure, they make a vaccine. And developing the vaccine isn’t the problem, it’s producing enough for everybody. By the time they made enough vaccine, many of the infected would have died. It’s likely, in fact, that the epidemic would be over by the time the vaccine were available in any appreciable quantity. That’s the thing about vaccines; they’re really good only before the epidemic happens, and so it doesn’t return.
But no matter. I liked it anyway. The movie told a moving story with likeable characters and served up plenty of apocalyptic crazy in the process.