Cannes was shaken 16 July by a South Korean virus flick about a bio-terrorist attack on a passenger plane. Eerily evocative of the ongoing covid-19 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-19, The Movie,’ Han insisted.
“When we prepared for the movie, there was no Covid-19. We knew SARS, but nobody was talking about coronavirus,” Korean director Han said.
At one level, it’s an action movie, I wanted to make it entertaining, he said. But I 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 said.
‘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 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-19 might help viewers to really immerse themselves in the film,” lead actor Lee Byung-hun said. 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 realise that any viewer with experience of Covid-19 can plunge into the movie even more intensely,” Lee said.
Apart from Lee, a superstar in Korea but in Hollywood thanks to ‘GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra’ and ‘The Magnificent Seven’, the film 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 17 July.