An engrossing medical disaster film from South Korea could make for summer entertainment stateside.

Contagion gets a makeover in Deranged, Park Jung-woo's high-pitched but engrossing South Korean medical disaster film, which took in north of $20 million through its first two weeks in its domestic market and even beat The Amazing Spider-Man during the July 13-15 weekend.

The source of a million infections is a mutant horsehair worm that develops in the human intestine until it's gruesomely ready to come out. The idea certainly has merit, and the creepy crawlers emerging from drowned cadavers and the like are impressive. Focused on one family's personal drama without lingering on repulsive footage, the tale is watchable by the young and squeamish and could find an audience in the U.S.

The pandemic starts when corpses begin floating down a river, bearing horrific signs of malnourishment. Policeman Jae-pil (Kim Dong-wan), brother of disgruntled pharmaceutical sales exec Jae-hyeok (Kim Myung-min), is sent to check for chemical pollution at the river's source. As more and more emaciated people are found drowned, enter the medics, with Dr. Kim (former Miss Korea Honey Lee) playing patients' advocate and inveighing against inhumane measures used by the government's national emergency task force. As the prime minister strains to get the epidemic under control, one is reminded of Japan's struggle to respond to its recent tsunami.

The most anti-Big Pharma film since The Constant Gardener -- though the ending softens its criticism considerably -- Deranged addresses the question of what would happen if there was a conspiracy by a pharmaceutical company to create a disease and stockpile the cure, killing thousands to maximize its profit. However, the brother-heroes addicted to playing the stock market also are guilty; they parallel the masses of victims in prey to the parasite taking control of their brains until it pushes them to commit suicide by throwing themselves into a body of water where the bug can continue its life cycle. That's greed for you.

Social commentary aside, writer-director Jung-woo does a fine job entwining the expected scenes of quarantine camps and mass hysteria, emergency task forces and martial law with Jae-hyeok's storyline as a below-average husband who becomes a hero when his wife and kids get infected. His relentless search for the remedy his company produced and hid furnishes the driving force for the main action, and Myung-min projects unflinching intensity in the role.

With all of this material to cover, pacing is perforce fast and never self-indulgent. However, there are a number of missed opportunities to pump up the adrenaline, had the widescreen camera only lingered longer on the victims' faces, the dogs been unleashed into the river at night or the audience been offered even one good, long close-up of that nasty horsehair worm.

Release date: July 27 (CJ Entertainment)
No MPAA rating, 109 minutes

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