Resurgence in Popularity for Korean Pandemic Thrillers
Apr 28, 2020
- Writerby Pierce Conran
Covid-19 Shines a Light on Popular Subgenres
Theaters may still be open in Korea but with fears of community spread and a lack of enticing new talent, the halls of the multiplexes are largely deserted. Viewers are instead retreating to their home entertainment systems, as they binge on a steady mix of new local dramas and international streaming options. A number of older film offerings have also found their view into people’s streaming habits, among them the suddenly very topical pandemic thriller genre.
Leading the trend during this era of global self-isolation has been Steven SODERBERGH’s realistic thriller Contagion from 2011, while Wolfgang PETERSON’s 1995 effort Outbreak is another film that has returned to the spotlight. Korea has also produced its fair share of pandemic thrillers and these are finding new viewers in the current health crisis, years after their initial releases.
Most notable among this batch of films is KIM Sung-soo’s Flu, which was released in the summer season of 2013 and welcomed over three million viewers. The comeback project for KIM, who hadn’t been in the director’s chair since 2003’s Please Teach Me English, the film starred JANG Hyuk (ORDINARY PERSON, 2017) as a fireman and Su Ae (High Society, 2018) as a nurse and mother in the popular Seoul suburb Bundang who suddenly find themselves at the frontlines when a deadly pandemic sweeps through the city. The crisis begins when human traffickers unwittingly invite a pathogen into the town when they open a shipping container from Hong Kong filled with infected corpses.
The film starts off in the dramatic mode, with a potential meet-cute between the protagonists when JANG saves Su Ae from a trapped car, but before long the mood takes a radical turn and KIM ratchets up the panic significantly. Within a few scenes the whole satellite city is locked down, and the scenery grows full of makeshift medical sites, hazmat suites and respirators. The script mixes melodramatic codes at the micro level, particularly through Su Ae’s daughter who needs to be saved, along with paranoia thriller elements at the macro level, as the government botches its response and considers dire options to save its own skin.
Another example hit theaters a year earlier, the disaster thriller Deranged, an even bigger hit with four and a half million admissions. Rather than a viral infection, this PARK Jung-woo film shows us Korea being ravaged by a parasite outbreak. KIM Myung-min (Pandora, 2016) plays a salesperson in a pharmaceuticals firm frantically trying to dig himself out of debt. One day, a grotesquely dehydrated body is discovered in a stream in Seoul, and a crisis begins to take shape as several bodies are found floating in bodies of water around the country.
Deranged also follows a family drama and paranoia thriller mold. The salaryman’s family members accidentally ingest the parasite, which makes hosts drink copious amounts of water until eventually drowning themselves in a body of water, and a shady pharmaceuticals company attempts to profit off of the crisis. Once again, nationwide hysteria ramps up quickly here, setting the stage for a number of unique panic set pieces of hordes of crazed citizens dashing through barricades in search of large bodies of water.
With its combination of influenza thriller, classic sci-fi and family drama, Deranged is a uniquely Korean spin on a blockbuster premise, which is largely indebted to BONG Joon-ho’s The Host (2006), another tale of a national crisis brought on by a dangerous water-based creature with a strong family angle.
The Host occupies an interesting place among pandemic films in Korea as in the world of the film the country has been told to fear a deadly virus being spread by a monster that has climbed out of the Han River, but we learn that there isn’t actually any virus. Yet in the absence of a real virus, we can instead appreciate the mania that can quickly spread owing to rumors and personal fears and prejudices.
BONG’s film follows a family working at a snack shack on the banks of a Han River that goes after a monster after it snatches away their daughter. The creature appears after the US military dumps chemicals in the river.
One of the most amusing scenes in BONG’s masterpiece, and one which has been widely spread across social media during this crisis, occurs when pedestrians wait for a street crossing light to change, each of them wearing masks. When one among them starts to cough, concern ripples among the group. He hacks and wheezes and lowers his mask to spit into a puddle in front of him, which a bus then rolls through, splashing the now feverishly panicked crowd. The scene merely amounts to texture, as it links to the scene of one of the family members, who is riding on the bus, but it effectively demonstrates how contagious fear can be in a situation such as the one we face today.
The idea of a government or military body creating a panic around an existential threat that may or may not be real was picked up once more by director HUH Jong-ho in his 2018 film Monstrum, Korea’s first period creature feature. KIM Myung-min of Deranged is again the lead here, in a film that is immensely indebted to Director BONG’s earlier hit.
A deadly outbreak is ravaging the Joseon Kingdom and weakening the power of its king. Rumors abound of a monster roaming the hills and the king, fearing a coup d’etat, enlists a retired general to track down the mythical beast. Monstrum foregrounds family dynamics that provide an accessible path for viewers into a narrative that mixes elements of horror, action and political allegory.
HUH was one of three major period horror projects that were launched within a few months of each other, between the end of the 2018 and the beginning of the following year. Next up was KIM Sung-hoon’s period action-horror Rampant, featuring HYUN Bin as a prince who returns to a Joseon Kingdom being ravaged by a mysterious illness. Before long, the superstar brandishes a sword against undead hordes. Following that was the first ever Korean Netflix Original series Kingdom, from director KIM Seong-hun and featuring RYU Seung-ryong, BAE Doo-na and JU Ji-hoon. The series, which recently debuted a widely-seen second season, also explores an illness being covered up in a political conspiracy.
Zombies and politics have been popular bedfellows in Korean cinema since the massive global success story of YEON Sang-ho’s modern day zombie film TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016). The film follows a man and his daughter who board a train that is soon overrun with zombies in a tale that allegorizes governmental responses to national crises. There was also LEE Min-jae’s THE ODD FAMILY : ZOMBIE ON SALE last year, about a struggling countryside family that starts to harbor a zombie, whose bite appears to rejuvenate the elderly men of the village, not to mention Seoul Station (2016), the animated prequel to TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016).
Looking ahead, while it’s hard to say when the next pandemic thriller will emerge, we do have a couple more zombie projects on the way. Provided theaters can get back up and running, we’ll be treated to big-budget, dystopian Peninsula, YEON’s sequel to TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016), while Intimate Strangers (2018) director LEE Jae-kyoo has teamed up with Netflix for the high school zombie series All of Us Are Dead.