Korean “Disaster” Films: 연가시 / Deranged

This entry is part 57 of 67 in the series SF in South Korea

I guess I blinked a week or two ago, as I missed Cabin in the Woods’ very brief release in Korea. This suggests it was a probably a good film, since good films here are rarely shown more than a week. Resignedly, Miss Jiwaku and I schlepped it down to the local cinema to watch 연가시 (apparently known in English as Deranged, which is not the best title choice, but then, it’s not the best movie so I don’t think the foreign title’s a problem).

Deranged is, just barely, Korean science fiction, so I figured I’d give it a review here. In any case, Deranged concerns an outbreak of what apparently is called a hairworm or a nematomorpha among humans. Now, these critters are real, and pretty interesting in the way they exert mind-control on their hosts; but in the real world, they exploit bugs like roaches and crickets. (And there’s a whole host of such critters out there, too.) Herein lies the bit of speculative extrapolation that makes the movie SF: in 연가시 the worms begin to parasitize humans, and in so doing, they exert the same kind of mind-control: the victims get insanely thirsty (kind of the opposite of the hydrophobia that dogs and other creatures develop when they go rabid); eventually, the human victims throw themselves into bodies of water — lakes, rivers, fish-tanks outside sashimi restaurants…

She was thirsty, okay?

The explanation? Well… that’s a spoiler, so I’ll get into it in the extended section of the post, but before I do, I have to say, I was very disappointed with this film. To me, it went something like a mashup of the “outbreak”  plotline in 괴물 (The Host), the mega-disaster storytelling of 해운대 (Tidal Wave), and a pinch of the whole generalized, non-specific zombie vogue.

The worst part of the three is the similarity of Haewoondae, which if you haven’t seen it was an off-putting ensemble narrative-type film about a tsunami striking Busan, killing a bunch of people (though unfortunately not the whole cast). As I noted when I mentioned it here, almost every major character was annoying and immediately hateable, to the point that I was actually rooting for their demise from early on. I felt the same way about most of the characters in Deranged. I can’t help but wonder why, in Korean disaster films, the focal characters are always either passive ninnies, or raging pricks. There’s usually no in-between.

As in The Host, the narrative in Deranged centers on a family, with the dad being the primarily viewpoint character. He is immediately unlikeable: in the presence of his (asshole) boss, he’s a fawning wimp, but as soon as he gets home, he transforms into a raging asshole himself. Admittedly, every time we see his wife and children they are eating and drinking–in fact, everyone is eating and/or drinking something in almost every scene for the first thirty minutes of the film; and the dialog in that part of the movie is almost always spewed out through mouthfuls of food. (I’ll admit, I’ve seen a lot of South Koreans talk with their mouths full, so it’s not particularly weird except that it’s constant, and pretty over-the-top. I felt kind of ill about fifteen minutes into the film.)

Other characters include some kind of cop or something, who is also kind of a raging asshole; the cop’s girlfriend, who works at the CDC and who is okay, if a little ineffectual, because she works for a boss who is–you guessed it–a raging asshole.

The Korean CDC does not work this way, trust me.

(At one point, when most of the country is already in a panic, he is still insisting on media control for fear of a panic. Uh… frankly, from what I know of the Korean Center for Disease Control (my ex interned there for a little while), they deserve a better depiction than that.) About the only likeable character is a coworker of the raging asshole dad. He was okay.

The zombie stuff was also okay, I suppose. I kind of wish the filmmaker had been willing to push things further: one of the few interesting moments in the film was seen through the eyes of an infected person trying to figure out a way of satisfying her own parasites’ mind-controlling demands. More of that would have been interesting.

But instead, what we mostly get is melodrama, and the only character growth allowed is, predictably, for the raging asshole dad to realize that maybe he’s been a raging asshole unnecessarily, all this time! Mom? The kids? The CDC officer? Nobody else really grows. Nobody develops, except for dad’s flip-flop. And worse, Mom and the kids are just plain annoying in the passivity. Mom does toughen up and finally do something, before the end of the film, but by that point I was kind of ready for her to die tragically… and I can’t say she really grows or develops. It is, insultingly, her maternal instinct that drives her to her moment of heroism. (I’ve nothing against maternal instincts, but are they really the only reserves female characters should be allowed? I think not.)

The mommy, mommying.

An then there’s the explanation I promised. Well, of all things: there’s a xenophobic element.

Of course there is. Isn’t there always, when it comes to outbreaks and pathogens and basically anything bad or evil happening in Korean films? Deranged is no different.

I should qualify this by saying that the xenophobic element is not pivotal, it’s more just thrown in, sort of like a curly handlebar moustache on a old-timey bad guy in an American film. Just a detail that adds to the evil evilness.

But first, the explanation:

Basically, a team of scientists were experimenting on the worms, trying to figure out a way to adapt them for life inside human bodies, in which they could be used for biomedical purposes: eating tumors or some such application. And then they got out into the wild.

Well, not quite.

The film hinges on this plot development: the worms end up in the water supply–the same worms that were developed in the lab, that is, the ones that can parasitize humans–by what turns out to be a conspiracy; the worms were delivered to the water supply of various regions across Korea by a group of black-clad bastards who dumped dead infected, dead dogs into the reservoirs in those areas.

He's, like, a cop or something. Whatever.

And who’s behind it? Big pharma, of course. One major plotline is that there is a drug, a wonder-drug, that kills the worms instantly, saving the lives of anyone who takes them. When the outbreak really takes off, the government calls up the company that owns the drug, and has stockpiles of it hidden all over the place. Unlike a real government, which would not take no for an answer, this government gets into bargaining with the company: when it offers to reimburse the coporation for the drugs, the spokesman notes that the shareholders are not interested in selling off the merchandise just yet, but that they would accept sale of the company to the Korean government… for a price many times its actual value.

It’s not that I want to spoil the story, so much as to say, you already know how this is going to end–how it has to end. There’s not much choice, really. And the result is that the film is all wet.

Unfortunately, the raging asshole dad does not contract a horsehair worm infection during his contact with the infested water.

But what annoyed me was that little moment of xenophobia, where, when various people are starting to figure out the corporation’s spokesman studied abroad with someone else involved in the nematomorpha biotech R&D project. We see, very vaguely, some photographs of him on various football teams in the US, and then, the crowning horror, we see him speaking in fluent English on the telephone, smirking with evil bilingual satisfaction.

What more proof of his evilness do we need?

Perhaps the reason I got stuck on the window-dressing xenocorruption aspect of this character’s development was because, frankly, as far as its sense of who the “bad guy” is, the movie was otherwise incoherent. It’s obvious a corporation is involved in an evil conspiracy, but the film is hardly anti-corporate. Once there’s an antidote, we get what almost plays like a pharmaceutical industry TV ad, featuring images of trucks traveling through the countryside–farmers pausing at their work to gaze at the tricks driving by, and all–and, rather embarrassingly, the logo for CJ (the corporation that owns of the cinema we saw the movie in, and produces a lot of the sugar in the snacks and drinks consumed there, as well as an obvious sponsor of the film) is emblazoned on the back of one of the trucks, though we only see it briefly.

If the film isn’t inherently anti-corporate, it also isn’t really inherently anti-biotech: the worms are horrifying, but it’s clearly an evil conspiracy by bad guys that causes the disaster, and not biotech itself.

That’s another problem in the film: the antagonist really does seem to be, well, just an antagonist. Think about it this way: if King Kong really was just a giant ape, he wouldn’t have kidnapped Ann Darrow; if Godzilla really was just a giant horrifying lizard, mightn’t he have just stuck to catching blue whales out in the ocean, instead of making the trip to Tokyo? SF needs that deeper layer of signification if it’s going to resonate with the audience in a meaningful way. The Host had it; Save the Green Planet had it; Nabi had it; some of The Doomsday Book had it. But most other Korean-made SF films simply don’t, and I think it may be because too many directors here seem not to get that SF can be (and should be) more than just a vehicle for selling popcorn and cola.

For example, the 연가시 could have simply been a rapid evolutionary response to climate change; after all, that’s an issue people are legitimately anxious about, and which institutions–corporations, governments, communities–are pretty stupidly neglectful without the need for a single bad-guy figure, or some cheesy conspiracy.

And there’s also the pessimistic view of the masses that annoyed me. They don’t just panic, they turn into complete moronic tools. At one point, a group of people are fighting over the rare, coveted medication that one character has, and by the end of the scene, nobody gets any, because the pills have been ground to powder on the concrete. Are people really that stupid? Well, actually… maybe they are, but it seemed so over-the-top in the film that I couldn’t help but wonder where the rare sane person was who might intervene, and say, “Look, folks, stop!” That sane person was nowhere to be seen: only idiot cops, idiot security guards, idiot rioters. Just because it’s arguably realistic, doesn’t make it compelling fiction.

Then again, I get the funny feeling that that, if anywhere, is where the real politics of the film lies: though a few zombies movies have come out in the past few years, the main theme of such outbreak narratives has often been about the repressiveness of the official response, and the panic of the masses.  I’ve often thought that this kind of narrative–where innocent people get sick, and then the government and its institutions crack down on them, suspending their human rights and general freedoms in the name of quarantine–has a special resonance in South Korean film; after all, it’s basically a medical metaphor for precisely what happened in South Korea from 1953 to 1987, when a series of dictatorships “quarantined” South Korea from Northern, communist influence.

The mind-controlled masses, fighting to escape the hospital and go to the river to die.

Of course, this is familiar to anyone who has seen The Host: Bong Joon-ho’s protagonists, the family at the center of the film, are pretty much subject to the whims of the powers that be (which are revealed to be a network of American and Korean military people, Korean police, government, and medical authorities, and businesspeople). The difference, of course, is that in The Host they fight back, and pretty damned effectively. In Deranged, this doesn’t seem imaginable; the door to the gym where mom and the kids (and a bunch of other civilians) are quarantined is padlocked, and pretty much major character (sadly, resentfully, angrily) accepts this as a matter of course. Again: just because it’s realistic, doesn’t make it compelling fiction.

I also couldn’t help but think about what one of my [Korean] students argued regarding zombie movies: “If there was a worldwide zombie outbreak, Korea wouldn’t last very long. Not as long  as Americans. And not just because they have guns.” She was arguing about the passivity of Korean characters, and their reactions to institutional breakdown, to which she felt Americans and Westerners generally would adapt much more quickly and effectively than Koreans. I don’t know how much I agree with her–I think in a real zombie outbreak, the whole world would be in pretty bad shape at about the same rate–but she was trying to say something different–a point about the different degrees of tolerance for idiocy on the part of leaders and institutions, which she felt was higher among Koreans than among Americans. That point is probably debatable, but beyond the scope of discussing this film.

Unfortunately, the movie does demonstrates one thing that is undebatable: there’s an audience for poorly-thought-out junk, as long as you market it carefully. At least, if the packed cinema we saw it in  (and the rankings in my CGV app, which place it at 3.5 stars out of 5) is any indicator.  I’d give it a star, maybe two. No more than that. The cinema should have been empty for this turd, and the film should have been gone within a week. Cabin in the Woods–or something else of better quality, with a little brains–should have been playing in that cinema.

Ah well…

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4 thoughts on “Korean “Disaster” Films: 연가시 / Deranged

    1. Kevin,

      Yes, but did you see why? It’s related to the breeding behaviour. Gah!

      John,

      Was briefly tempted to make a side trip through Daejeon to see it, but, nah. I’ll find a way sooner or later, I’m sure…

  1. Figured I’d note here that Miss Jiwaku and I managed to catch Cabin in the Woods after all… it wasn’t advertised as being planned to play longer at the Coex Megabox, but suddenly it did, so we caught it earlier this week. I’ll post about it sometime soon…

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