In a way, director Han Jae-rim’s “Emergency Declaration” was a prophecy of what’s to come for the world as it continues to battle its way through the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the director, however, when he initially received the idea for the film 10 years ago, he never expected it to come to life.
“Emergency Declaration” revolves around passengers on a plane flying from Incheon to Hawaii. A mysterious passenger named Ryu Jin-seok, portrayed by Yim Si-wan, boards the plane and releases an unidentified virus that quickly spreads and infects people through their respiratory organs. The virus kills whoever it infects within a matter of hours. In the face of a disaster, the passengers, flight attendants, and pilots must find a way to land the plane safely and quickly with a minimum number of casualties. Back on land, government officials and regular citizens must decide how they will respond to the situation.
“I resented the timeliness [of the Covid-19 pandemic],” Han said in an online interview on Aug. 3. “When I chose to develop this script, it was beyond my wildest dreams that such predicament would happen in reality. As a director who was showcasing a film revolving around a disaster, I felt I was standing stark naked in front of the audience because everything [in the film] felt like a spoiler.
“When I received the initial script of the film a decade ago, the narrative peaked my interest because I imagined the situation of the virus spreading in an enclosed space, some thousands of feet up in the air, to be pure horror. [The pilots] wouldn’t be able to land the plane randomly because you don’t know what kind of aftermath the virus would have on people outside the plane, so I thought it would be the perfect scenario to delve into the essence of what a disaster is, and gripping to tackle the ironies and conflicts stemming from the situation.”
Han hoped the film would spark a message of hope in the sense that even in the face of extreme disaster, a small ounce of humanity could resolve a catastrophe. The film, instead of focusing on the build-up of the plot leading up to the disaster, chooses to quickly expose Jin-seok’s identity and instead zooms into how the situation is handled.
“Jin-seok was the symbol of a disaster,” Han explained. “Whether that would be a natural disaster, the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the September 11 attacks, or others, I wanted to focus on the lives of people after the disaster — on what kind of lives they would go on to lead, how they are still scarred from what they’ve gone through and how they are still battling.
“All of us fear the unknown, or what could happen in the face of a disaster,” Han said. “That is natural because that’s part of who we are. Some may avoid the infected in the fear that they might catch the virus, and while some of the infected do not care for others and go about doing what they would be doing in their daily lives. Some may remain quarantined because they don’t want to cause further harm. In the face of all kinds of fear and predicaments, people may show a variety of their true colors which may be self-centered, but what I wanted to show through the film was that despite people’s fears and selfishness, it is the diligence coming from each person doing their own job, as well as their courage, that defeats a disaster such as the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Despite a cast featuring big-name actors such as Jeon Do-yeon and Song Kang-ho, the recipients of Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and Best Actor at the festival in 2022, the protagonists — Lee Byung-hun, Kim So-jin, Kim Nam-gil, Yim Si-wan, and Park Hae-joon — all manage to blend into the myriad of other passengers and citizens, making audiences feel like they are watching a documentary rather than a film.
“I didn’t want a hero or a savior to appear and save everyone,” Han explained. “But I also didn’t want the protagonists to be oblivious bystanders. They are all just people, hardworking people doing their jobs. This film isn’t like ‘Die Hard’  and it doesn’t offer the catharsis of one person resolving everything. Instead, it’s about little pieces of courage from each person coming together, and that accumulated humanity can ultimately win over the calamity. I wanted the film to be as realistic as possible and tried to avoid any exaggeration or unnatural cinematic set-ups.”
As much as the lead protagonists are shown on screen, the film also zooms into other passengers on board, for which Han went through “countless auditions” up until shooting started.
“I wanted all the passengers to feel like people that we meet and see in our daily lives,” Han said. “After sorting out faces that I felt were adequate, then I turned to their acting, which is why it took us such a long time to finalize our cast. Every one of the passengers did a great job, and the lead cast blended right into the set.”
Aside from the message of hope for audiences in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, one of the highlights of the film are scenes that portray the passengers, strapped to their seats, and spiral downward to the sea as the pilots lose consciousness due to the virus. The set was created using an early model of a Boeing 777, which was airlifted all the way from Las Vegas to Korea.
“We had to create an airplane set that could rotate 360 degrees [to realistically portray the falling],” Han said. “We had it all planned out with the crew we hired from Britain because it was an unprecedented scale to make a set as big as an airplane set to rotate. But everything was canceled when the pandemic hit. Then we went to Demolition, a company specializing in special effects in films. After looking through our examples, they said that it would be possible to create the set. We were very safety conscious, first having our action crew, staff, and passengers wear three seat belts to test the set-out and slowly getting them used to the rotating speed. We also had to secure the cameras and camera directors on the set as well by rigging them to the plane floor, which is how we managed to capture the vivid responses of the passengers.”
The film was released in local theaters on Aug. 3.
BY LEE JAE-LIM [email@example.com]