It may be an obvious sentiment at this point, but it’s become genuinely difficult to look at the world around us and not think that something’s gone completely, ineffably, and gradually wrong. In the midst of a pandemic that’s irreversibly ravaged any concept of a “normal” life that came before it, disaster seems to have become a default state of existence for many people — and when it comes to the South Korean box office, that sense of impending disaster has constantly found itself being reflected in several mainstream films over the past several years. From 2013’s Flu — a film that, well, happens to be about a hyper-lethal mutated strain of H5N1 — to 2016’s Buried-esque survival drama titled Tunnel, all the way to last year’s disaster-comedy Sinkhole, about apartment residents who find themselves trapped in a building that’s plunged 500 meters into the ground, the South Korean film industry has rapidly become rather familiar with creating uniquely dangerous situations to place their characters in, and in turn, finding ways to inspire audiences by pulling them out of seemingly insurmountable peril.
Enter Han Jae-rim’s Emergency Declaration, a Korean disaster movie that, if nothing else, will likely go down as the most aspirational and ambitious film to emerge in such company. Dedicated to providing a deeply immersive experience while providing an exciting ensemble cast of widely-respected actors, Emergency Declaration‘s two hours and 27 minutes of airborne mayhem might initially read to some audiences like a completely dead-serious rendition of Airplane!, without going into too much detail about its narrative. But it doesn’t stop there — the film then goes full-throttle into scenes that take technical inspiration directly from the Inception playbook, all while launching itself into a series of sequences that juggle not just each cast member’s motivations in the context of its in-flight fiasco, but also its potential diplomatic and political implications. Fasten your seatbelts, because this is a disaster-action film that, while quite effective at points, also seems like it’s biting off a fair amount more than it can chew, and it doesn’t help that a lot of what it’s eating is just standard airline food with some extra seasoning.
The opening text of this film serves to ominously define the airplane terminology of the film’s title, equating an emergency declaration made by an airplane’s pilot to essentially be aviation’s way of declaring martial law — a declaration that must be abided by whenever a commercial flight must land under any and all circumstances. With that promise looming large over the aviation disaster that’s yet to ensue, the movie then leaps right into introducing the characters on both land and air that are about to find themselves at the center of this calamity. Right from the outset, we’re shown the mysterious Jin-seok (Yim Si-wan of The Merciless fame), who’s introduced as suspiciously as humanly possible, insistently asking a flight attendant what the longest flight with the most people on it will be, before then being seen graphically implanting a strange metal tube into his armpit in one of the airport’s bathroom stalls. Boarding the same long-distance flight as him to Honolulu are Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun, in his first major post-Squid Game role) and his daughter, who Jin-seok menacingly harasses and threatens before following them into the plane. On top of that, Jae-hyuk’s fear of flying makes the early hours of the trip difficult for him to endure, for reasons that his former friend — and also, coincidentally, the plane’s copilot, Hyun-soo (Kim Nam-gil, a prominent star in recent Korean blockbusters) — knows about him from his fraught past.
Meanwhile, on the ground, seasoned detective In-ho (Song Kang-ho, fresh off his Cannes Best Actor win for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker), having just sent his wife off to that very same plane alone after insisting that he not go with her, hears news of a video uploaded by Jin-seok about his impending plan to commit an act of terror on an airplane. In-ho’s colleagues at the police station shrug it off as a prank at first — what kind of a terrorist would announce his plan so openly? Does he even know how robust airport security is nowadays? — but a paranoid, subconscious concern for his wife’s safety drives In-ho to investigate, given that Jin-seok appears to live in an apartment nearby. Sure enough, his suspicions are proven right, as the ensuing search into Jin-seok’s dingy apartment room leads to a gruesome and terrifying discovery right as the plane fatefully takes off, one that eventually grows to demand the attention of the Korean Ministry of Transport, led by Minister Sook-hee (the irreplaceable Jeon Do-yeon). As Jin-seok executes his plan in the airplane’s cabin, leading to several horrific deaths of mysterious origin, law enforcement on the ground scrambles to land the plane and find out the source of the terrorist’s methods at whatever cost, all while the plane’s passengers begin to succumb to fear and paranoia.
The big-screen-tailored spectacle of this film — and it truly is tailored, as Emergency Declaration has been premiering on IMAX screens in South Korean theaters — might not exactly rival anything seen in tentpole blockbusters on a Hollywood scale, or be as deconstructive as something like Jordan Peele’s Nope, but its dedication to realism is at its best when it’s used in scenes that require significant technical prowess. A noteworthy centerpiece of the film is dedicated to an incident in which the plane’s pilots lose control, causing the aircraft to swerve and rotate erratically, and the people in it to rock back-and-forth with convincing accuracy, while those without seatbelts are flung helplessly around the airplane’s cabin. In a move pulled directly from the production playbooks of Inception and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Han’s team utilized a 360-degree rotating setpiece to perfectly simulate the sudden shifts in gravity, which works to impressive effect during the sequence in question when merged with the overwhelming sound design used in conjunction. Yes, it’s probably worth mentioning that scenes of such enormous technical coordination don’t take up too much of the film — and many of the scenes in between are filled with a barrage of Punch-Drunk Love-style lens flares which, unlike that film, obscure more than they tend to decorate — but when they do eventually arrive, they definitely seem to enhance scenes that would have otherwise been incoherent and cheap had Han and his crew not paid attention to their bold attempt at immersion.
In fact, a lot of the casting choices made in this film appear to work to that same effect: enhancing characters and roles that would have been underdeveloped and boring to follow had a full cast of award-winning actors not been there to fill in their shoes. Setting aside the obvious elation I felt seeing Song Kang-ho and Jeon Do-yeon — the only two South Korean actors to deservingly receive Cannes performance awards — reunite after their work in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine, the majority of the actors here might not get all that much to do relative to their work in previous, more prominent roles, but their experience and extensive filmographies allow them to pull their weight, or at least, to the extent that their limited roles will allow them to.
A highlight among them is Lee Byung-hun, whose typically charismatic, intimidating image seems to have been exchanged for a more bumbling, awkward role with Jae-hyuk, especially as he tries clumsily in the first few minutes of the film to overcome his fear of flying and also look after his daughter. As the situation escalates, however, said image largely returns as Jae-hyuk starts to take initiative in the terrorist situation to truly protect his daughter from imminent harm, and fully confronts a jarring part of his past that he’s been avoiding, making Lee perhaps the actor with the most to do in this ensemble, and Jae-hyuk the only character in this story to really get to have a fulfilled sense of growth. The rest are completely serviceable; each performer here brings their own individual, uniquely crafted charm to their characters, but whatever growth or evolution they undergo feels either a little rushed or absent, a seemingly unfortunate inevitability for a nearly 2.5-hour-long movie that’s trying to give at most a dozen main-character-worthy performers something to do.
It’s worth saying that no one, and I mean no one, brings a poor performance here, yet the sparseness of the roles they’re given makes one wonder how well these characters would have been pulled off if actors of this ensemble cast’s caliber were absent. It’s an unsettling impression to take away from a movie with two Cannes award winners, a Hollywood-level South Korean star, and numerous other hitmakers in the South Korean film industry… and perhaps it says more about the film’s writing than anything to do with these actors’ skills. While it’s a little difficult to talk about Emergency Declaration‘s narrative stakes without getting into specific spoilers, Han’s intention with this film seems to have been to create a microcosmic beacon of hope for deeply troubled times, framing the crises we currently face now through a representative story of terribly endangered passengers in an airplane and the people in public office trying to bring them back home.
The problem is that in trying to avoid doing too little, Han flies at Mach speed straight past Goldilocks into doing far too much. On top of giving the characters a personal stake in the crisis that each need an individual resolution by the time the film ends, every single potential diplomatic issue that arises because of, say, the plane’s entry into another country’s airspace, or its respective attempts to land, are taken into full consideration and made major plot points — made even more backloaded by the film’s unusual narrative structure of an action-thriller-esque first half, followed by an indulgently dramatic and over-explanatory second half. It’s difficult to describe just how much actually happens during the final 40 minutes of this film, and it would have collapsed in on itself with brutally pressurized force had the actors not been engaging presences to watch on screen, and the technical dedication to immersion not been as competent. By the time the film ends, it’s easy for the hope and optimism for days to come, as intended by this film’s representation of our chaotic and turbulent reality, eventually be overshadowed by a growing sensation of “what the hell was all that, exactly?” — an unintended side effect of Han’s overwrought and flawed dedication to total realism and immersion.
Emergency Declaration will probably feel at points like too much movie magic — its intense pursuit of realism, scale, and immersion works just as much to its detriment as it does to its benefit. Yes, it’s hard to deny the effect of the incredible technical prowess on display in its most riveting action setpieces, as well as the collective skills of its enormous and deeply admirable ensemble cast, who are all incredibly welcome presences on screen. At the same time, though, the cast seems underutilized on characters that rarely get the time to shine that they deserve, and the filmmaking here appears to be in service of a story that comes off as more ludicrous and overwhelming rather than uplifting and inspiring. It’s not a dull experience by any means — anyone who thinks they’ll have a fun time with this film and its absolute rollercoaster of a story should feel free to check it out whenever possible — but anyone who’s looking for something that earns its emotional moments and successfully sticks the landing with airtight precision will probably take some issues with their experience flying on this bumpy ride.
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