By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, July 26 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's first aviation-disaster genre film, "Emergency Declaration," could have been remembered as a classy movie if not for its contrived and cliche-ridden story and predictable twists.
It's not that this film didn't have the quality to be selected for the Out of Competition section of the 74th Cannes Film Festival in 2021. But these flaws just stopped the latest 25 billion-won (US$19 million) budget disaster blockbuster from becoming more than absorbing action-packed entertainment with grandiose settings and A-list actors.
Written and directed by Han Jae-rim of "The King" (2017) and "The Face Reader" (2013), "Emergency Declaration" mainly follows In-ho (Song Kang-ho), a veteran police detective, in his desperate struggle to prevent a possible terrorist attack on a South Korean flight bound for Hawaii after finding out his wife is also onboard on a trip to the American resort island with her friends.
The film begins with a scene at a crowded Incheon International Airport, the main gateway to South Korea, with Jin-seok (Im Si-wan) loitering around without a clear destination in mind.
The camera then shows Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), a father with aviophobia who waits in a check-in line at the airport with his daughter. They are going to Hawaii for the sake of the girl's health. After Jin-seok tells the girl something intimidating for observing his suspicious behavior, he decides to board the same flight as the girl and her father.
In-ho goes to work as usual in the morning and receives a report about the presence of an online video of a young man threatening to wage a terrorist attack on an airplane. While all his colleagues ignored the threat as mere mischief, In-ho goes out to find the whereabouts of the man just in case and discovers at his empty house evidence showing that he has long prepared for bioterrorism.
When a passenger suddenly dies after coughing up blood on the Incheon-Hawaii plane, Jae-hyuk and Hee-jin (Kim So-jin), the chief flight attendant, begin to suspect Jin-seok as a bioterrorist. The plane's deputy pilot Hyeon-soo (Kim Nam-gil) struggles to cope with the case, moving between the cockpit and the cabin while communicating with the presidential crisis management center on the ground. As the mysterious virus planted by the terrorist quickly claims more lives, including the plane's chief pilot, he faces a critical moment in declaring an emergency landing instead of the dead pilot.
On the ground, Suk-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), minister of land, infrastructure and transport, tries to do her best to handle the unprecedented terror disaster, while Tae-soo (Park Hae-joon), the chief of the crisis management center at the presidential office, is increasingly torn between whether the government should save the people onboard or the greater number of Korean citizens on the ground.
Although the director has repeatedly emphasized that the movie is ultimately about people fighting off disaster while stranded on a plane, its strength appears to be the spectacles created by a crashing plane rather than the drama.
The production team shot the sequences of the plane fast dropping from a high altitude and its inside in a gravity-free state by rotating a life-size plane filming set 360 degrees. This provides a sense of extreme reality, making viewers feel as if they are sitting next to the passengers.
But the film's only and fatal problem is the improbability of its plot as mentioned above. (This review has some spoilers after this point, so those who are interested in the film should stop reading now.)
I'll just mention a few of the film's many improbable details. Even if we accept that there is a new type of virus that can make people bleed to death in hours after they are infected, how can so many things happen in less than eight hours of flight time? How can In-ho's wife just happen to be on the ill-fated plane and Jae-hyuk, a former pilot who worked with Hyeon-soo, happen to be aboard the same plane? How can the terrorist take out a mysterious substance he smuggled onto the plane under his skin without noticeably bleeding? What is the likelihood of a rank-and-file police detective getting into and speaking at an anti-disaster management meeting attended by only high-ranking government officials, as well as infiltrating a high-security lab where the deadly virus exists without any difficulty at all?
The lesson we learn from the movie is even a star-studded cast, including two Cannes-winning actors -- Song Kang-ho and Jeon Do-yeon -- as well as top star Lee Byung-hun, and a big budget cannot save a movie with a contrived plot and mediocre writing.
"Emergency Declaration" is set to open in local theaters Aug. 3.