Review: Despite ‘Squid Game’ and ‘Parasite’ stars, ‘Emergency Declaration’ can’t stick its landing

A Korean father holds his daughter as they are caught in a mid-flight disaster in the thriller "Emergency Declaration."
Lee Byung-hun (“Squid Game”) and Kim Bo-min as father and daughter caught in a mid-flight disaster in the Korean “Emergency Declaration.”
(Well Go USA )

Despite the presence of two of the country’s biggest stars in an airline-disaster thriller, “Emergency Declaration” doesn’t look or feel like a typical Korean blockbuster. It’s shot in a handheld, vérité-inspired style and effectively generates tension. It generally avoids the histrionics that are so often the genre’s baggage in the cinema of most nations — until an emotionally manipulative denouement makes for a rough landing.

Smart, but not movie-hero-style, detective In-ho (Song Kang-ho, the dad in “Parasite”), sees his beloved spouse, Hye-yoon (Woo Mi-hwa), off to Hawaii. Single dad Jae-hyuk (superstar Lee Byung-hun, seen by American audiences most recently as the Front Man in “Squid Game”) takes his young daughter on the same flight. Then there’s handsome, young, uptight Jin-seok (Im Si-wan), who shows up without a ticket, asking to board whatever flight has the most people on it. That can’t be good.

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Indeed, Jin-seok has bad intentions that could endanger the lives of everyone on that Hawaii flight, and potentially many, many others as well — it’s a virus-related plot sure to make viewers particularly uncomfortable in this pandemic age (in a movie ironically delayed repeatedly by COVID). Writer-director Han Jae-rim expertly unspools the story’s multiple threads, as In-ho uncovers clues on the ground and Jae-hyuk, also no fighter, discovers the danger in the air. The performances are uniformly solid, especially by the two leads, and the generally low-key cinematic style keeps us in the pocket of the story.

There are a few suspicious coincidences (a certain passenger just happens to be a pilot, etc.) and the film banks hard in its climactic moments toward a contrived-feeling stab at tear-jerking nobility. It’s a shame, because that clumsy conclusion pulls us out of the predicament, defusing much of the tension with its artificiality.

“Emergency Declaration” received a special screening at Cannes last year, and then faced additional COVID-related release delays before finally taking off in Korea this month (it’s already among the year’s top five grossers there). Apart from some not-great CGI, it does have some of the “event” elements that would draw people back to theaters, though it doesn’t stick the landing.


'Emergency Declaration'

Language: Korean with English subtitles
Rated: Unrated (Some violence, disease-related gore)
Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes
Playing: At CGV Cinemas LA on Aug. 12