By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
With its 220-minute running time, you could fairly say that “Emergency Declaration,” the new film from South Korean writer and director Jae Rim-han, drags a bit. It lacks the biff-bang-pow dynamic central to the disaster film genre, although selected parts of it move with lighting ease.
I cut it some slack, though, for however accidentally telling the truth about disasters, about emergencies. Such situations often stop and start. They often terrorize, and then leave you in the lurch to stress over your stressing.
The action begins in South Korea’s busy Incheon Airport. Amidst the steady flow of bodies sorted onto aircraft, a young and fresh-faced man in a suit appears. He grins a little too much. He asks inappropriate questions and if questioned about the questions, grins bigger and says he’s just asking. What’s wrong with that?
The young man is Jin-seok, played by Si-wan Yim. As the action unspools, we’ll learn more about him, and why he’s trying to board a plane with no luggage, and seemingly no care about where the plane lands. Yim leads with the big smile, but eventually shows us the twisted landscape behind his visage.
Director and writer Rim-han had his script finished before the COVID-19 outbreak. But he admits his central plot gimmick of a mutant virus gone wild inside a plane, caught up with the news in a chilling fashion. He plays on the hidden anxieties many passengers feel—fear of crashes, fear of being shut up in a confined space, fear of having no place to go. And when a crisis strikes, some people rise to the occasion while others crumple.
Police detective In-ho (played by Kang-ho Song, famous in the West from his starring role in the Oscar-winning “Parasite”) looks tired from the get-go. But when he discovers his own family in peril from Jin-seok’s psychopathic scheme, he throws himself into saving their lives at any cost. His devoted selflessness contrasts with several others looking only after their own skins.
Two strong female characters emerge. In the air, Hee-jin (So-jin Kim) has to keep passengers calm, well-regulated, and prevent their ugliest impulses from destroying every life on board. On land, Sook-he (Do-yeon Jeon), a high-ranking Minister, must toil for the plane’s safety, often in the face of hostility from forces both home and abroad.
The film follows the air-disaster formula in its sprawling fashion. The charismatic villain, of course, unleashing menace. The everyday heroes, rising about their station to save lives. The compromised hero, in this case Jae-hyuk (Byung-hun Lee), traumatized from old wounds, fighting to get back to his best possible self through the current crisis.
So the movie sometimes dawdles over its set-ups. Objectively, sure, it could have been 20 or even 30 minutes shorter. But it ends up manifesting a truer picture of life in the midst of upheaval, co-mingling the stress with the dread.
And the people in charge sometimes have to make tough decisions. From the audience’s perspective, some of these decisions look heartless, sans compassion. After all, we’re made to sympathize, maybe even empathize, with the people in the plane. We want their lives saved as much as they do.
But to the people on the ground, it could look different. The authorities have to speculate on what’s happening in the sky, have to make decisions where some, even most, of the cards lie face down. Decisions affecting lives, health, and stability of people on the ground.
So enjoy the wild ride. But remember real life. And ask yourself, silently: What would I have done in their shoes?
“Emergency Declaration” opens August 12 in Seattle. Check local listings for theaters, prices, and showtimes.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.