'Emergency Declaration' Director on COVID Providing 'Spoiler' for the Film

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic feels like a chilling case of life imitating art via Emergency Declaration, the gripping new Korean blockbuster film about a fictional virus outbreak, which was devised years before the pandemic.

Starring Parasite actor Song Kang-ho (named Best Actor at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival) and Screen Actors Guild award nominee Lee Byung-hun (the Front Man character from Squid Game), the film traces the unprecedented outbreak of a mysterious virus aboard a plane following a terrorist attack.

"Everything happening right now is shocking and frightening, we're all just caught in a disaster that none of us wanted"—the poignant words spoken by Lee's character Jae-hyuk in the film's most heartbreaking scene marks a telling moment of today's times.

Emergency Declaration writer/director Han Jae-rim—who has worked with some of South Korea's biggest stars on various films, including Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung from the new film Hunt, Yoo Ji-tae from the Korean spin-off of Money Heist and Kim Min-hee from BAFTA winner The Handmaiden—was offered this film project a decade ago, years before COVID-19 existed.

Speaking to Newsweek from Seoul, the South Korean capital, Han explained he had no idea that a fictional crisis situation he'd created in his mind would later play out in the form of a global pandemic.

His latest film sees an unknown virus spread like wildfire on the plane, where the infected are later effectively quarantined. News of the outbreak sees countries close their borders to prevent the virus from entering their land as the plane, now full of the diseased, makes desperate attempts to access any airport in the nearest country.

"Parasite" actor Song Kang-ho in "Emergency Declaration."
"Parasite" actor Song Kang-ho in "Emergency Declaration." Well Go USA Entertainment

Han said that "while the idea of a plane disaster was attractive at the time, I wasn't sure what kind of story and message I wanted to convey with it."

The director finished writing the script in July 2019 and COVID-19 first broke when the film shoot was about to begin. "I was anxious and couldn't even begin to imagine this [COVID-19] becoming a pandemic," but the outbreak "gradually became worse" just after filming commenced.

"The existence of a terrifying infectious disease spreading around the world was really scary and sad. As the outbreak deepened and witnessing the scenarios from a script I'd written unfold before me in reality, it felt like the present day was serving as a spoiler for the film," Han said.

The pandemic forced the film shoot to follow stricter quarantine measures, but it didn't change the course of the script, "which already had a thorough continuity," the director said.

Korean actor Lee Byung-hun.
"Squid Game" actor Lee Byung-hun (left center) seen in "Emergency Declaration." Well Go USA Entertainment

Much of what Han planned to convey in the film was already being mirrored in the real world, from "the pain and suffering caused by the disease" and "the accusation and hatred between the infected and the uninfected" as well as the fear of getting infected and infecting others. "I saw this entire process as a disaster and I wanted to make Emergency Declaration a miniature version of that."

Making a disaster movie in the modern age "comes with a lot more responsibility," Han said, "because we're living a life so closely related to disasters."

The word "disaster" these days doesn't just encompass natural events. Incidents like the 911 terror attacks, the 2017 Las Vegas shooting (the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history) and terrorism itself all count as disasters, the director explained.

"When such disasters occur, we are swept away without knowing why. You can choose to focus on the wave of the disaster that comes crashing in and that moment of fighting against it. Or focus on how we want to draw the story of our lives after the disaster has passed. I wanted to do the latter," said Han.

Emergency Declaration doesn't solely portray "the spectacle and action of terrorism on a plane." It depicts a situation in which a lot of tension has been resolved yet "interestingly, the space where the disaster has passed remains as dense as it was."

The impact "continues to spread internally and attract our focus even after the plane lands," he said.

Veteran Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon,=.
Veteran Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon, the Best Actress award winner at the 60th Cannes Film Festival, stars in "Emergency Declaration." Well Go USA Entertainment

Given it was shot while the pandemic was unfolding, the film felt more real than ever. But it was also important for it to feel realistic from a technical perspective, he said, especially for one of the film's most vertigo-inducing, nail-biting scenes when the plane rotates 360 degrees while in free fall after an infected pilot collapses.

The director said: "One of the most important things about this movie was to make it realistic. Especially for this scene, I wanted the audience to feel as if they were actually on the plane."

He explained: "Rotating a plane, especially a huge three-row Boeing 777 aircraft, 360 degrees had never been done before and I worked with a Korean company called Demolition to make it happen."

For many of his films, Han has accessed a bank of veteran Korean actors, including Parasite's Song. "The latest movie is my third film working with Song and he's an actor I trust and rely on to a point where I wouldn't have done Emergency Declaration if he hadn't taken the role of In-ho [a chief police detective]. He's someone who always breathes such a depth of emotion into a seemingly monotonous role and is the central anchor of this film."

Korean actor Kim Nam-gil.
Korean actor Kim Nam-gil in "Emergency Declaration."well Well Go USA Entertainment

Han has also directed Squid Game's Lee Jung-jae, who he describes as "an intelligent, high class actor filled with a deep yearning inside," in The Face Reader film. "Many fans abroad were first introduced to Lee through Squid Game and he's now made his directorial debut with Hunt, so I'm really rooting for him."

Han's next project will mark his venture into series development. He's currently shooting a show called Money Game, which was formed from two Korean webtoons (Money Game and Pie Game) combined.

The story sees eight contestants compete in an "extreme setting" where "social infrastructure is cut off" and "the game ends if there is a death," Han said. "I hope you'll look forward to it."

Emergency Declaration, written and directed by Han Jae-rim, is in select North American theaters now.

Director Han Jae-rim at press conference.
Korean director Han Jae-rim at a press conference for "Emergency Declaration." Well Go USA Entertainment