If the current resurgence in superhero movies is designed to help us escape what we’re really scared of – ‘It’s okay, someone with power will sort it out!’ – then the recent spate of disaster movies are telling us that we should keep calm and procreate. Reinforcing heteronormativity at every computer-generated turn, today’s symbol of tomorrow is the product of good, wholesome family values: a man, woman and child.
When we talk about survival we often reference a complete action: having endured tough conditions or prevailed against the odds. But survival is also about continuance. And when it comes to cinema there’s a lot more to the story than a beginning, middle and end.
The disaster film deals with both aspects of survival but divides them carefully between plot and agenda. The action of surviving – causal by nature – propels the plot forward. Continuance – the inference of what will happen in the film world after we leave it – belongs to the imagination.
For any film festival, devoting an entire side program to genre seems like a misstep; even more so for a festival with a reputation for socially and politically aware art-house fare.
But as festival fatigue starts to set in, shaking up an otherwise fairly predictable slate of gritty and depressing national cinemas is welcome – even if it does look a lot like Hollywood, only with subtitles.
More of a theme than a genre, these films each presented characters who encountered large-scale disaster and survived, against the odds. The type of catastrophic content was varied. The black and white meditative documentary Metamorphosen was a German-produced essay-film about the effects of thirty years of extreme radiation on an all but forgotten village near the Techa River. That was quite different from the ludicrous, blockbusting heights of Ta-weo (The Tower), a farcical South Korean production featuring a lot of explosions.
The slow, reflective portraiture of Metamorphosen aside, four of my five ‘Survive!’ films served the act of survival as main course, with a heteronormative chaser. All three South Korean films – Kim Ji-hoon’s Ta-weo, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, and Kim Sung-su’s Gamgi – along with the baffling Russian entry Metro, showed me how, after disaster strikes, the only thing that really matters is the restoration of the family unit and, with it, the promise of a future.
Ta-weo is surely the stupidest film I will see all year so I won’t spend too much time explaining its Swiss cheese plot. Suffice to say that a minor sprinkler malfunction becomes a major issue when a helicopter dispensing fake snow crashes into a giant glass structure. Many explosions ensue.
Among the film’s major survivors is a physically strong, handsome and all-round ‘nice’ guy, Young-ki. A single father, whose daughter’s only Christmas wish is that he remarry, Young-ki is attracted to the pretty, placating, sugar-couldn’t-be-this-sweet Yoon-hee. After two hours of illogical fire extinguishing antics, the three survive the ordeal. Their triumph: a combination of being more physically resilient than their elders, and more level-headed than any of the single characters. Perhaps someone ought to add a footnote to Darwin’s seminal text to explain that those in love, and with a child to protect, have a stronger will and a higher success rate when it comes to survival?
Following almost exactly the same paradigm, Gamgi sees a beautiful though wilful woman, Kim In-hae, and her daughter meet the strong, selfless Kang Ji-koo. Through their combined hetero efforts, they outdo everyone else’s determination to survive a mutated killer flu pandemic. Their burgeoning love is definitely a contributing factor but it’s also their determination to keep the child alive that really sets their story apart and, ultimately, ensures their survival. In a groan-worthy twist of fate, it is the innocence of the child in her earlier moment of generosity towards patient zero that ultimately saves her, and all of humanity. Injected with his blood, she becomes the sole carrier of the antibodies and saving her becomes the literal cure for the virus that has infiltrated South Korea. (From China via illegal aliens in a shipping container, no less.)
The most disturbing of the lot, though, is Metro. Where South Korean disaster films seem to be concerned with the severed family unit – one parent has either died or abandoned the other, signalling attitudes towards North Korea – the Russian family unit is torn apart by the degraded moral values of its dissenting women. In Metro, Irina, an attractive but deceptive woman, shoulders all of the blame. The mention of the end of the world and a state of emergency is foreshadowed at the start of the film with the sexual climax in her extra-marital affair. Later, when Irina learns that her lover, husband and daughter are all trapped underground together, she breaks down, repeating the words, ‘I never wanted this!’. If we were to break down the message it would read: If only Russian women – beautiful, sexy trophies though they are – were less deceptive and more domestic, the nation wouldn’t face this crisis in the first place.
Despite some vague narrative divergences, and decidedly more misogyny from Russia than South Korea, all three films finish with the same three characters: a child; a strong man whose physical actions, bravery and selflessness helped save the day; and a woman whose love for the aforementioned man helped give him the will to continue, and whose maternal instincts and genetic makeup promises caring of said child and, possibly, the spawning of more children.
If there was any doubt in my mind that these films were geared towards a heteronormative agenda, then a quick recap is enough to set the record straight. Christmas Eve in Ta-weo saw a burning bush, Gamgi the plague and Metro an epic flood. As a viewer, then, the challenge isn’t to survive the narrative, but to leave the screenings unscathed by the conservative, hetero-procreative agenda. I’m pleased to say that, high octane though they undoubtedly were, the films had zero impact on me.
But then again, I don’t think The Avengers – or our collective global governments – will save the world either.