Edited by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D., Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, library liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.
This is the second in a series of blog posts on global pandemics by the staff of and/or subject specialists directly affiliated with Duke Libraries’ International and Area Studies Department. As is the case with the first installment of the series, the librarians who contributed the following entries seek to offer suggestions for further reading, not a comprehensive bibliography on the topic. For additional resources (visual or textual, analog or digital) on plagues/infectious diseases/moral panics from around the world, please contact the appropriate IAS librarian. And if you have any recommendations of your own, please “reply” to this blog post below.
Librarian for Film, Video, & Digital Media and Women’s Studies
Unless you are a die-hard fan of the genre, it may be too soon in our experience of COVID-19 to seek out movies featuring infectious diseases that inspire moral panic or plagues that end the world. And even hardcore fans might want to take a break from perennial favorites, such as The Andromeda Strain (dir. Robert Wise, 1971, U.S), 28 Days Later (dir. Danny Boyle, 2002, U.K.), Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006, U.S. & U.K.), Contagion (dir. Stephen Soderbergh, 2011, U.S.), or the cult classic (and my personal favorite) 12 Monkeys (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1995, U.S.).
However, as Duke’s Librarian for Film, Video, & Digital Media, it is my job to challenge patrons’ expectations of what/when/who is watchable by exposing them to visual resources that they might otherwise not know about or simply choose to ignore. That is why I have compiled a short list of lesser known, but no-less-provocative foreign films that are all available, with English subtitles, in the Duke Libraries’ film collection. Precisely because of their variety of approaches—from bucolic (Wondrous Boccaccio ) to philosophical (The Seventh Seal) to apocalyptic (The Flu)—these films demonstrate that there are as many cinematic responses to pandemics as there are international movie makers and audiences. And these responses are as unique and culturally-mediated as the cinematic experience itself.
Wondrous Boccaccio (dirs. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 2015, Italy)
consumer streaming platforms | Lilly DVD 29001 | streaming in the Libraries [access requires Duke netid/password | licensed through 9-30-2020]
Based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Renaissance classic, The Decameron, this film follows the lives of ten young people who flee plague-ridden Florence in the mid-14th century, at the height of a pandemic that would ultimately kill over 30 million people, alter the European social structure, and influence the ideologies of those who survived. The Taviani brothers use Renaissance painting as a source of inspiration in their film. The cinematography evokes the vibrant colors of artists such as Botticelli in his scenes from The Decameron, as well as those of Masaccio and Giotto, moving from dark blacks in the plague-ridden city to vibrant colors of the countryside. The characters find refuge in an abandoned villa in the Tuscan hills and pass the time by telling each other tales of love, which range from the erotic to the tragic.
Blindness (dir. Fernando Meirelles, 2008, Brazil & Canada)
consumer streaming platforms |Ford DVD #4943
Based on the bestselling novel by Nobel-Prize-winning Portuguese author, José Saramago, a city is ravaged by an epidemic of instant white blindness. Filmed on location in Brazil, Canada, and Uruguay—although “the city” is never specifically identified—the story focuses on the behavior of people who are losing their sight and are forced to survive in a sea of whiteness. The film depicts the ugliest side of human nature in a crisis; it offers a devastating portrait of institutional failure and government betrayal. The viewer can recognize chilling parallels with our current COVID-19 crisis, from the opportunism of corrupt governments to the neglect of the health-care system. Blindness is an end-of-civilization fable which is thought-provoking and topical in its indictment of declining social mores.
The Hole (dir. Tsai Ming-liang, 1998, Taiwan) Lilly DVD 366
At the cusp of the 21st century, Taiwan experiences a torrential rain that brings with it a mysterious virus of epic proportions. Symptoms of “Taiwan Fever” include high fever and an acute sensitivity to light. Sections of the city are quarantined with essential services cut off by the government. The film is set in an apartment block in a quarantine zone where residents remain, against quarantine regulations. A plumber comes to fix a leak and instead leaves a gaping hole through which a tenant can see into his neighbor’s apartment below, and they develop a connection. The Hole presents a remarkable blend of aesthetic elements of science fiction, absurdism, and romantic fantasy, with musical sequences to boot. The film does not travel beyond the bounds of the apartment block. It explores the inward-looking aspects of an outbreak—the isolation it causes and how interactions with others become intensified.
The Seventh Seal (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden) consumer streaming platforms |Lilly DVD 14846
Exhausted and embittered after a decade of battling in the Crusades, a knight returns home to a land ravaged by bubonic plague. He encounters Death on a desolate beach and challenges him to a fateful game of chess. Focusing on issues of man’s relationships with death, life and God, Bergman’s story transcends simple metaphor in this now classic work rich in philosophical allegory that remains especially relevant today.
The Flu (dir. Kim Sung-su, 2013, S. Korea) consumer streaming platforms | Lilly DVD 26447
This South Korean medical disaster film tells the story of panic, despair, and the desperate struggle for survival in a city that has been quarantined after the outbreak of a deadly virus. The virus in this scenario is H5N1 influenza (commonly known as the ‘bird flu’) introduced by illegal immigrants from Hong Kong, arriving in a shipping container. In order to prevent the spread of the virus worldwide, the government issues a national disaster and orders a city-wide lockdown. Citizens stock up on daily necessities, starting riots as mistrust of each other builds. In the meantime, politicians’ quarrels, powerless governments, and unwelcome U.S. involvement force the viewer to consider eventualities that might be even more frightening than a virus attack. Sound familiar?
Korean Studies Librarian
Aside from scientific articles in medical journals about the most recent outbreaks of new strains of influenza and coronavirus, the issue of pandemics on the Korean peninsula has only recently attracted the attention from the English-speaking scholarly community. That is why most of the publications on the topic are currently in the form of scholarly journal articles, dissertations, and theses, rather than academic monographs.
For example, in 2011, Chaisung Lim, then Assistant Professor at the Institute for Japanese Studies at Korea’s Seoul National University, published an article on “The Pandemic of the Spanish Influenza in Colonial Korea” in the Korea Journal, a quarterly academic publication founded in 1961 with the goal of promoting Korean Studies around the world. By examining the Spanish influenza, which was widespread during 1918-1921, Lim sought “to elucidate the structural aspect of disease and death in colonial Korea” and to “explor[e] its socioeconomic effects.” The author focused on the public health policies adopted by the Government-General of Korea (GGK)—the Japanese colonial ruling organ from 1910 to 1945—and the degree to which these measures contributed to the mortality of the general population. He further probed how GGK’s policies were differentiated by ethnic group (ethnic Koreans and Japanese), as well as how much access each ethnic group had to measures for medical treatment. His research revealed a significant difference in the fatality rates between the two ethnic groups—a conclusion that reminds me of the differential effects of COVID-19 on the health of racial and ethnic minority groups in the US. Interestingly, Lim’s study also posited that the social frustration caused by the pandemic and the ensuing economic hardships served as a source for the so-called March First Independence Movement in 1919, one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule.
Another example of English-language research on the same topic comes from somewhere even closer to home. Two years ago, a Duke undergraduate student named Alan Ko asked me, in my capacity as the Korean Studies Librarian, to assist him with his research on the Spanish flu during the colonial period in Korea. He was then in the process of working on an honors thesis in the History Department and was looking for Korean-language primary sources. Among other things, I suggested that he take a look at contemporary Korean newspapers, such as those made available in e-format by several different Korean newspaper archives. He used those sources to examine how Western missionaries in colonial Korea perceived disease among the local populace and how public health efforts correlated with certain preconceived cultural and social factors. Needless to say, it was very gratifying to learn that Alan not only went to graduate with honors, but that his honors thesis, “Pathogens from the Pulpit: Missionary Perceptions of Disease in Colonial Korea (1910-1940),” was deposited in DukeSpace—Duke Libraries’ online repository—thereby making the results of his research freely-available to other scholars. It was also nice to see that the author publicly acknowledged the support that he received from Duke’s librarians, who not only helped him to locate “appropriate Korean language sources,” but also cheered him on with tea and pistachios, while he edited his thesis, during “work-study shifts” at Perkins library.
Plagues/infectious diseases/moral panics have also been a feature in Korean popular culture, appearing in several famous films, dramas, and novels. One of the most recent films on the topic (The Flu) has already been mentioned above, in Danette Pachtner’s post on pandemics in international cinema. Here, I would like to draw attention to another movie: “The Host,” a feature film directed by Bong Joon-ho—the Academy Award-winning director of The Parasite (2019). Both The Host (2006) and The Flu (2013) were inspired by the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic of 2002-2004, which was caused by a different, but related strain of coronavirus than COVID-19. Both films describe virus-related epidemic/pandemic situations and deal with the interplay between political and environmental issues. But only The Host has an American villain who is even more evil than the virus-spewing monster that he inadvertently unleashes upon the world.
The plot of The Host begins in a laboratory on an American military base in South Korea. An American scientist working with dangerous chemicals orders his Korean colleague to dump them into the Han River, saying “who cares” and “it can’t really hurt anyone.” Of course, turns out it can. The movie goes on to trace the havoc wreaked on Korea by a river-dwelling mutant created by the illegal dumping of chemical waste, as that monster begins to spread a deadly new virus, which can be transmitted (SARS-like) to humans through animals.
Despite its fantastic premise, this mash-up of medical disaster and monster movies actually has a basis in reality. In fact, the film was inspired by an incident from 2000 in which a Korean mortician working for the U.S. military in Seoul was ordered to dump a large amount of formaldehyde down the drain. And, unfortunately, scenes from the movie have become an all-too-real part of our daily routine in the age of COVID-19. In an eerie foreshadowing of the paranoia and anti-Asian racism that has attended the outbreak of the latest coronavirus pandemic, the movie depicts a world in which people who wear facemasks are so afraid of viral transmission that they come to suspect one another of deliberately, if not maliciously, hiding symptoms of the disease. The movie also highlights, if only by negative example, the critical role that the government can play during a national health crisis, portraying the South Korean government as bureaucratic, inept, and essentially uncaring. Surely, there is no country in the world today where the government can be described in such unflattering terms. Now that is pure fantasy!