Emergency Declaration (비상선언, Han Jae-rim, 2021)

“Disasters are arbitrary” admits a pundit commenting on a potential air disaster, “people became victims for being in a certain place at a certain time”. “We were caught in a disaster that none of us wanted” the pilot later echoes while explaining that they have chosen to exercise what little control is left to them in making their own decision as to how they intend to deal with the hand that fate has dealt them. Han Jae-rim’s Emergency Declaration (비상선언, Bisang Seoneon) harks back to classic disaster pictures of the 1970s such as genre archetype Airport but also meditates on Korea’s place in the contemporary global order along with the rights and wrongs of exercising one’s own judgement when it goes against all practical advice. 

The disaster in this case begins with a mad scientist, Ryu (Im Si-wan), who decides to kill as many people as possible along with himself by releasing a deadly virus he tweaked to make even more lethal aboard a commercial airliner. Later it’s suggested that Ryu had some kind of breakdown after the death of his mother, also a microbiologist, who had a domineering influence on his life which does seem to play into an uncomfortable trope of blaming the mother for everything that goes wrong with a child though Ryu’s resentment is in part towards the pharmaceuticals company he claims fired him unfairly. As in many recent Korean films, a strong undercurrent of anti-Americanism runs throughout, the international pharmaceuticals company with an American CEO refusing to assist the Korean police’s inquires not wishing to admit that they illegally procured a deadly virus from the Middle East and then allowed Ryu to get hold of it illicitly. This also of course means that they are slow to grant access to a potential antidote/vaccine despite carrying both. Meanwhile, the plane is later turned back from Honolulu and prohibited from landing anywhere on US territory because of the uncertainty surrounding the infected on board. 

The plane in effect becomes a kind of plague ship that takes on additional significance during an era of pandemic. Having been rejected by the US, the plane tries to land in Japan but is also refused permission and later threatened by the Japanese Self Defence Forces who even open fire on it and threaten to shoot the plane down if it does not leave Japanese airspace. The official response is more nuanced than it had been with the Americans, a politician expressing his regret and sympathy with the people of Korea but also emphasising that their responsibility is towards the people of Japan and that as they cannot be sure the treatment will work on Ryu’s mutated variant, they cannot allow the plane to land. As the opening titles explain, an Emergency Declaration is a sacred aviation rule that means no one should be refusing them help, yet they do begging the question of what it really means if in the end the authorities can just choose to ignore it. 

But then again, it seems that not even Korea is fully onboard with accepting the plane back onto Korean soil. With news quickly spreading via social media, mass protests erupt from those who brand it a “biochemical missile” and would rather it be shot down than risk contaminating the wider population while counterprotests insist that there are many Korean people onboard and it’s only right that they be allowed to return home and be cared for by the authorities. The authorities are however torn, unwilling to admit they’re considering simply allowing 150 people to die for the greater good leaving only the Transport Minister (Jeon Do-yeon) to exercise her own judgement in arguing for the plane landing with quarantine procedures in place. 

Former pilot Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), a passenger on the flight with his little girl who suffers from eczema, is later tasked with exercising his own judgement in deciding whether to land the plane at a closer airport he feels is safer or try to hold out until the destination recommended by the authorities despite dwindling fuel supplies. The plane disaster is Jae-hyuk’s redemption arc allowing him to overcome past trauma in having made a similar decision before which led to the deaths of two cabin crew thanks to the selfishness of passengers who blocked exits trying to retrieve their luggage before escaping. One thing that wasn’t so much of an issue in the ’70s is that passengers are now able to receive information in real time via their phones thanks to onboard wireless, meaning that they learn all about the virus, the cure, and that the cure might not work independently giving rise to even more chaos and confusion and presenting a serious threat to traditional disaster management techniques. Nevertheless, they too eventually exercise their own judgement in coming to the conclusion that perhaps it is better if they choose not to land rather than risk infecting their friends and family.

The passengers on the plane do not blame those on the ground accepting that they are simply afraid. “You can’t just save yourselves” a particularly paranoid passenger is fond of saying completely oblivious to the fact that’s what he’s been trying to do with a pointless insistence in segregating the infected aboard a plane that exclusively uses recycled air only to completely reverse his thinking on hearing the plane may make an emergency landing in which case the rear of the plane, where the infected are, is safer. It is in the end a radical act of self-sacrifice by a policeman on the ground (Song Kang-ho) that paves the way to a happier solution for all but could just as easily have turned out differently. Disasters are arbitrary after all, at least as long as you aren’t the one causing them. Counterintuitively, the message may be that your government might not help you and others certainly won’t, but if you’re making your own emergency declaration you have the right to exercise your own judgement in the knowledge that either way you’ll have to answer for your decision.  


Emergency Declaration is released in the US on Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on Nov. 29 courtesy of Well Go USA.

Clip (English subtitles)

Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage (악질경찰, Lee Jeong-beom, 2019)

Jo Pil-ho- The Dawning Rage posterThe Man From Nowhere’s Lee Jeong-beom returns five years after No Tears for the Dead with another retro crime thriller, though this time one with additional bite as he digs into a nation quite clearly failing its young. Another of the recent films set in the post-Sewol world, Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage (악질경찰, Akjilkyungchal) is a noirish voyage through an intensely corrupt society in which Chaebols act with impunity while goodhearted schoolgirls are branded delinquents and left to fend for themselves by the “adults” who seem to have abandoned all sense of social responsibility.

Our hero and the titular “bad cop” of the Korean title, is Jo Pil-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) – a corrupt police officer who abuses his position to force criminals to commit crime on his behalf. Recently, he’s teamed up with a teenage safecracker, Gi-chul (Jung Ga-ram), and is also involved in an ill-advised business relationship with a petty gangster. IA are all over him, but they don’t have anything yet. Everything is about to change, however, when an angry Pil-ho decides it would be a good idea to rob the police warehouse. The gangster’s minion makes a mistake and the place blows up with Gi-chul trapped inside. Suddenly it’s not looking so rosy for Pil-ho who is now implicated in a series of crimes only to discover that there is far more going on than he could have anticipated. The warehouse fire appears to be connected to an ongoing corruption case involving one of Korea’s biggest conglomerates and Pil-ho may have just destroyed key evidence without realising in an attempt to save his own skin.

Despite himself, Pil-ho is not such a bad guy. He’s corrupt and greedy, but he has a moral compass and probably sees himself as kicking back against the system rather than abusing it seeing as he only seems to take money from sources he feels could stand to lose. This is perhaps why he finds himself increasingly shaken by his investigations, eventually forced to pick a side – surrender to Chaebol influence as a willing underling or expose the corruption possibly at the cost of his own life.

In true noir fashion his own past comes back to haunt him as he re-encounters the father of a young woman (Im Hyeong-gook), Song Ji-won (Park So-eun), who died in the ferry tragedy and had wanted to become a policewoman when she grew up. Pil-ho was the officer charged with the empty gesture of presenting him with a police uniform with his daughter’s name on it. In an unlikely coincidence, the girl Pil-ho needs to find, Mina (Jeon So-nee), was Ji-won’s best friend. Alone and without family, Mina has been living by her wits on the streets but as Mr. Song points out she’s not a bad kid at heart and goes to great lengths to protect those close to her.

Despite their original mutual distrust, a kind of camaraderie eventually builds up between the cynical cop and the jaded teen who views the so-called “adults” around her with nothing more than contempt. Her admiration for Pil-ho begins when he beats up a sleazy backstreet doctor who tries to swap treatment for sexual favours and then continues as Pil-ho, against the odds, begins to look out for her in ways no one else ever has. Mina, like many kids, is simply trying to survive in a world which is often actively hostile to her existence, but unlike Pil-ho she has avoided becoming cynical and remains committed to protecting those weaker than herself even if others may write her off as a lost cause delinquent.

Set in Ansan which, as an ironic sign tells us before falling to the ground, is the “city of happiness”, Dawning Rage locates itself in a haunted land in which the lingering effects of the ferry tragedy are impossible to ignore. Pil-ho begins catching sight of teenagers everywhere but their presence only seems to highlight absence while providing a kind of chorus watching and observing the adults around them in order to learn how to live. The corrupt Chaebol cites his provision of scholarships as evidence of his commitment to building a fairer society, all while knowing that by doing so he is really buying influence and loyalty. He spins a yarn about his humble origins and makes a show of inspiring the next generation, but thinks nothing of silencing those who stand in the way of his selfish aims.

The corruption rains down from above – the Chaebols make their money and they cut corners, leaving ordinary people squeezed. Fear and deference are the primary contributors to the societal decline which placed innocent young people directly, if unwittingly, in harm’s way. This is Pil-ho’s “dawning rage” as he awakens himself to the depths of injustice within his own society with which he had blindly gone along thinking only of himself. With a distinctly 1970s aesthetic, Dawning Rage is a dark conspiracy thriller in which the system is so hopelessly corrupt as to be beyond saving. Pil-ho is a “bad cop” who turns out to be acting for the public good after all but finds himself pushed towards the dark side by the intransigence of his society and forced into an act of violent revenge both personal and social.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sub-Zero Wind (영하의 바람, Kim Yu-ri, 2018)

Sub-Zero Wind poster“Life is something you have to get through alone” the mother of the heroine of Kim Yu-ri’s debut Sub-Zero Wind (영하의 바람, yeonghaui balamcoldly claims. In South Korean society, few things are more important than family bonds but when familial connection becomes weaponised it leaves the vulnerable out in the cold. Badly let down by bad luck and irresponsible parenting, Kim’s heroines have only each other to rely on but find even their unbreakable bond strained by the self-centred, unfair, unequal and hypocritical world in which they live.

Kim follows the girls over seven years beginning with the 10-year-old Young-ha’s traumatic introduction to her step-father (Park Jong -hwan). Young-ha’s mother Eun-suk (Shin Dong-mi), big in the Church, has divorced her dad and now that she’s going to have a new “housemate” has decided that Young-ha should go and live with him. With everything packed into a moving van including her bed, Eun-suk sends her off with the removal man and a cheerful goodbye as if she were seeing off a guest who’s outstayed their welcome. Unfortunately, Young-ha’s dad has done a moonlight flit and so the removal man has no option but to take her back home, only her mother has gone out to celebrate and isn’t answering her phone. Eventually Young-ha is abandoned on the side of the road along with all her possessions, waiting for Eun-suk to come home and sort all of this out.

Some years later, Young-ha appears to have integrated fairly well into her new family, a large portrait of which hangs above their sofa in the elegantly decorated apartment. In fact, despite her original dislike of him, Young-ha seems much closer to her step-father whom she calls “dad” than to her frosty mother. Meanwhile, her best friend and cousin Mi-jin is having a tough time. Both her parents have died, and Eun-suk was supposed to be looking after her but has left her to live with her elderly grandmother and is secretly embezzling her parents’ life insurance payments to put towards her religious education in the hope of founding a church of her own. For this reason, she is terrified that Mi-jin’s grandmother will die and her other relatives will find out about the stolen money.

The truth is the Eun-suk is one of those people obsessed with the church rather than its teachings. Kim opens the film during a sermon in praise of love throughout which Young-ha has her eyes wide open, staring at her mother and her new boyfriend in the knowledge she is soon to be ejected from her mother’s new life. Despite going on about leading people to God and practicing Christian virtues, Eun-suk is often judgemental and extremely self-centred. All she cares about is being a member of the organisation and increasing her status with in it though she has obviously not kept to its teachings in that she has divorced her first husband and is now living with a man she is not not married to who is actually still married to someone else. All of this will, if it is discovered, quite obviously prevent her from becoming a minister but Eun-suk remains undeterred.

Meanwhile, she emotionally neglects her daughter and is sometimes jealous of her close relationship with her step-father. Truth be told, there is something a little inappropriate in how close they remain as Young-ha transitions into adolescence. One could assume her step-father has over invested in his new family because he misses the daughter he left behind, or that father and daughter have bonded through each being pushed out by Eun-suk’s cold hearted pursuit of her goal, but the fact remains that the family unit is quietly disintegrating under the pressure of her emotional absence and eventual slide into the hypocritical selfishness which sees her keen to adopt her boyfriend’s daughter for appearance’s sake or because she fears his leaving her while keeping her sister’s daughter Mi-jin at a distance.

When it becomes impossible for Young-ha to continue living in the family home, she turns once again to Mi-jin and the two girls try to make a go of things in Busan as soon-to-be high school grads. The main problem that they face is not so much finding employment as a place to live. Getting a room requires a running start – key money, deposit, rent payable in advance. The girls have savings, but not quite enough for starting a new life on the minimum wage when you don’t have anywhere to go back to or people you can ask for help. Eun-suk is always telling her daughter that they can “start over”, but there are times when you can’t or at least not in the same way. When the girls are cut loose, abandoned finally and completely, it may actually be a kind of relief. “Starting over” released from a destructive cycle of familial disappointment may be a real possibility but all they are left with is each other in the cold winds of an unforgiving city as they try to find a way to live as independent young women with no firm ground on which to take hold.


Sub-Zero Wind screens on 6th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.