If an epidemic thriller is as good as the agent of destruction it unleashes, then Deranged is a deserved hit. Its economic use of effects to create a devastating outbreak panic drama has had a landslide of box office success in its native South Korea, and is also in the midst of a limited run in US theaters, giving a leaner alternative to Hollywood's offerings of summer blockbusters.
The story begins from the point of view of Jae-Hyuk, a chemist employed by a failing pharmaceutical company who is struggling to make ends meet to support his family. He resorts to demeaning tasks, like entertaining his superior’s family at an amusement park outting, juxtaposing their carefree life with his own family’s relatively meager living conditions. We learn that Jae-Hyuk’s compromised position was caused when he followed a bad tip on another pharmaceutical company’s investment, which was passed on to him by his brother, Jae-Pil, a cop who struggles with his own financial issues. After a glimpse of this tension, family dynamics are put on hold when a disfigured body turns up in a river with origins in a nearby sleepy resort town popular to vacation goers. Soon several more corpses turn up in the water, while other individuals burst into wildly erratic behavior across several cities. It is the beginning of an infectious outbreak sending the police in search of a cause as hospitals and the government search for a cure, all the while trying to get a handle on a population of alarmed and infected citizens.
At first Jae-Hyuk is not all that concerned with the initial reports. Nor is his brother, who reluctantly follows up on a lead in the nearby town where bodies first started appearing. They are largely preoccupied with keeping up their daily grind, focusing on what may get themselves out of their monetary quagmires. The rift between those that live luxuriously and characters like these protagonists, who calculate every move as a factor in their survival, is prevalent here, as in many other Korean films. Their attention is captured, though, when when Jae-Hyuk’s wife and two children show signs of being infected, and Jae-Pil finds signs of something sinister lurking in the shadows of the outbreak.
Without the factual grounding of a film like Contagion, Deranged does a pretty good job approximating an epidemic suddenly overcoming a nation with fear as government, law enforcement, and other social services respond with varying effectuality. At the same time, a more sensational truth behind the virus lurks. A more realistic tale would delve more deeply into scientific phenomena and portray the actions of a wide range of responders. Deranged goes for a more personal angle, detailing the desperate efforts of a father trying to save his family. It gives the story a suspenseful thrust and the chance to put human greed and selfishness on trial.
The team behind deranged has created quite a formidable incorporeal foe with the virus, its basis rooted strongly in real life parasitic life forms. Treating the graphic horror with a light touch, the terror here is in the afflicted behavior it brings about in its victims and the chaos that ensues. First it instigates the appetite of its human hosts into a state of hyperactivity, like a super sped up addiction. Then it afflicts them with physical anguish, before finally warping them mentally. You would not be far off if your mind is summoning images of teeming hordes of zombies. Here the frenzied masses are reminiscent of those depicted in the first part of recent Korean anthology pic Doomsday Book, which is another story about consumption-related zombieism. With its focus on rabid behavior over gore, it also brings to mind the transformed lot from the way back Cronenberg classic They Came From Within.
Besides the effective portrayal of frantic panic and the movie's accomplished pacing -- the events really fly by at breakneck speed -- its greatest asset is how, taking a page from The Host, its far from perfect protagonists pull together to find strength in the face of adversity. Kim Myung-Min is a perfect everyman, devoted to his family but burdened by the fact that for all his hard work, it will only allow him to get by. As he describes it early on, he is stuck in a race that one stumble prevents him from winning, yet he is bound to finish it. Also giving a breakout performance is Moon Jung-Hee as Jae-Hyuk’s wife and mother of their two children. She brings her character to life as an unlikely hero. From the beginning her stature is meek, yet she finds herself in a vicious and heart wrenching struggle, battling off her own rapidly deteriorating condition in order to protect her children.
Like other great films of this nature, Deranged plays at being a parable for a society whose appetite grows and grows while its caregivers are incapable of dealing with ensuing crisis. One of the most striking images of the movie, and definitely my favorite, finds Jae-Hyuk on his back, limbs extended with each appendage barely holding a different family member back from the brink of self destruction. Then there are the sequences of gorging on food and gulping down water until the victims are left gaping desperately at the lack of these resources. Although it is in the context of the virus, one watches and can’t help but reflect on warnings that the level of consumption going on all around us is out of control.
These more serious ideas are slighted, unfortunately, in the movie’s end run, which tries too hard to force it all down as a crowd pleaser. A sense of that too perfect dramatic timing, reminiscent of the popular political thriller series 24, rears its head. While I can overlook this in light of the strong performances and brisk action, another sequence, comes off as way too heavy handed a bit of nationalistic propaganda to not leave my hands wringing. Perhaps it’s a response to a nation in need of a boost of morale? But it feels way too forced and doesn’t match the darker tone that pervades most of the film.
Still, this does not completely negate the 110 minutes of suspense and emotional storytelling that comes before. Nor does it make the viral threat, which is sure to get under your skin and crawl around there for some time to come, any less unsettling.