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‘Emergency Declaration’ (review)

Emergency Declaration is a Korean disaster thriller directed by Han Jae-rim, and starring Song Kang-ho (Parasite, Memories of Murder), Lee Byung-hun (I Saw the Devil, JSA), Jeon Do-yeon (Memories of the Sword), and K-pop idol, Siwan.

A powerful, big-budget production with periods of overwhelming tension, Emergency Declaration is one of the best films to come out of Korea since the pandemic and a worthy inclusion in the pantheon of great thrillers that have formed the spine of the New Korean Cinema of the last twenty years.

Where this film succeeds is in masterful use of time in the first two acts– Emergency Declaration may be homaging the 70’s disaster thrillers from Hollywood, but for the first act this thing feels like 24: The Motion Picture. Song Kang-ho’s workmanlike plainclothes cop is running down a lead on an online terroristic threat, as a dangerously calm and chipper businessman, played by Siwan, is asking increasingly threatening questions to employees and customers alike at the International Airport.

Lee Byung-hun is there, chaperoning his sick daughter on a trip to Hawaii, and it’s the presence of a sick child that sways our deranged businessman to choose a flight.

Song’s investigation turns up dead rats, a dead body, and a deadly virus just as Siwan’s businessman is cutting holes in his chest to smuggle aboard the weaponized form of the same virus. By the time both ends of the script have reached one another, Jeon Do-yeon’s stewardess is just minutes late in preventing the virus from being released aboard the fully manned flight.

What follows is part techno-thriller, part COVID allegory, and a full meditation on the inevitability of death that recalls The Wages of Fear. This was an extremely big budget production by South Korean standards (about 20 million dollars before marketing) and we’re rewarded not only with some spectacular effects shots but a cast that’s just perfect in all phases.

Song’s hang-dog everyman cop recalls Walter Matthau’s protagonist in the classic Taking of Pelham 123, and it’s’ perfectly in keeping with the persona he’s crafted since 1999’s JSA as perhaps the world’s finest heir to Jimmy Stewart. He’s contrasted well by Lee Byung-hun, someone I associate with stronger, “man of action” type roles but is here the traditional “disaster movie” hero with his daughter aboard the plane. I thought his performance skillfully recalled both Gong Yoo’s similar turn in Train to Busan as well as, of all people, Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure. Jeon injects wonderful strength and humanity into what could easily be a thankless role as the pragmatic stewardess.

That said, special attention must be paid to Siwan who is only in the film for a short time but enters and exits like a bullet from a high powered rifle. We’ve had a number of motiveless psychopathic villains since The Dark Knight, and really the archetype in modern form dates all the way back to the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry, but I’ve seldom seen the part played with the intensity it is here. When he is confronted by passengers and authorities who believe they’re dealing with a rational terrorist who has goals and demands, his answers are so shocking that even though I saw them coming I was taken aback by the sheer emotional power he put into them. This is a masterful, against-type, performance from the young actor that should see him branch out and develop into a mature actor for years to come.

A star-making appearance, no other way to say it.

Coming out of Cannes, this film received some criticism for its third act which dramatically slows the pace of the film as the protagonists begin to believe that there is no hope for them. It’s difficult to go into detail about the third act of any thriller without spoilers but suffice to say for the purposes of this review I thought the whole worthwhile element of this picture was that it married the form of the 70’s disaster picture, not known as a storehouse of quality in Hollywood’s history, with a real existential desire to examine how people behave with death has become, in their eyes, inevitable. I understand how the tonal shift could be seen as jarring but for me, the third act is beautiful, well executed and as uncompromising as it could have been as both a satire of COVID realpolitik and an examination of that most human of all desires: “I don’t want to die.”

Excellent film. Highly recommended.

4 out of 5 stars.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Han Jae-rim, Baek Chang-ju 
Written and Directed by Han Jae-rim
Starring Song Kang-ho Lee Byung-hun Jeon Do-yeon
Kim Nam-gil Im Si-wan Kim So-jin Park Hae-joon

 

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