It was a pity because Jae Rim Han’s newest film Bi Sang Seon Eon / 비상선언 (Emergency Declaration) had so much promise. The set up takes us through a packed Korean airport, picking up conversations from passengers mingling about. We’re not sure yet where the hook is, until a young girl finds herself accidentally walking into the men’s bathroom only to stumble upon a man inserting a vial into an open wound (very á la Witness). The story spins out its web from here and the agitated passenger, whose plan could soon be foiled, tails the girl and her father and ultimately changes flights to theirs. Meanwhile, we see Ki Taek of Parasite fame as a detective visiting a Korean home, linking a decomposing body to the mysterious passenger.
Onboard the plane, the attacker goes to the bathroom, extracts the vial and spreads it into the cabin air. What ensues is a bioterrosim attack on the cabin, circulating an invisible, highly transmissible virus with a ridiculously short incubation time – sound familiar? Between Ki Taek on the ground warning air traffic control, the father who is already suspicious of the terrorist and the horrendous gorey death of a passenger, the pieces are starting to come together – but for me it all unravelled from this moment.
From here on out, it could be harshly described as a dramatic reading of Airplane (1978). The ‘invisible’ virus is demonstrated through floating flakes that make their way into the pilots’ food and once the pilot is out, conveniently the father turns out to be a former pilot, who like Striker is scarred from an accident and suffering from a drinking problem. Despite this he’s still called on to hit flaps 40 to land it and save the day. In an even more bizarre turn, the plane’s destination of the US denies them permission to land due to the hazard the new virus poses, forcing the flight to do a U-turn only to be met with the same response in Japan and even its home soil of Korea. The final straw was Ki Taek on the ground deliberately injecting himself with the virus with the purpose of demonstrating the effectiveness of the antibody they claimed to have found that same day; Pfizer should have taken a leaf out of their books.
It does succeed in the suspense department, in the horror of the situation the passengers are faced with. It draws on the classic Lord of the Flies trope of desperate people splitting up into tribes to protect themselves. It also showcases the insidious, infectious nature of social media in tandem with the actual virus, as unsubstantiated reports reach the cabin well before they reach the cockpit, and worryingly towards the end the families are called on to deliver a key message as authorities lose direct contact with the plane.
The concept of the virus was a bit too close to home and not in the sense that COVID is too stressful to watch play out on screen, it’s that the main premise of the plane not being able to land in one sovereign nation after the next is simply not realistic to us in a post pandemic world. We all watched as travel screeched to a halt in March 2020 but it did so naturally and there were no military scramblers sent to pick these out of the sky. We certainly didn’t leave a plane running on empty, rejecting all pleas to land until a cure was found. Although a timely thriller for a pandemic, it was like showing Apocalypse Now to a bunch of US soldiers in Denang circa 1968; unrealistic, sanitised and completely at odds with the realities of what the audience knows with complete certainty to be true. All in all, it had so much promise to be something different but it suffered both from a lack of imagination and a poorly timed release schedule – this mask-wearing audience is wiser, and perhaps more cynical in a post pandemic world.
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