While movies with fictional storylines are great on screen, the films that are based on true stories are the ones that stay with you long after you’ve left the cinema. This was the case with my viewing of Cho Yong-sun’s Toxic (공기살인; Gonggisarin).
Starring Kim Sang-kyong, Lee Sun-bin, and Yoon Kyung-ho as characters ER doctor Jung Tae-hoon, lawyer Han Young-joo, and manufacturing company manager Seo Wook-shik. Toxic focuses on the humidifier disinfectant incident where a tragedy in South Korea 11 years ago (which is really not that long ago) resulted in the death of mothers, women, and children due to lung damage caused by a disinfectant product being used in humidifiers. Although the film is billed as a drama and mystery, I feel that Toxic is more of a medical and corporate thriller. Sure, there is barely any blood shown, and no major action sequences of dramatic deaths, but there are still deaths, nonetheless.
Toxic takes you on a rollercoaster journey through love, heartache, pain, fear, grief, frustration, determination, and even betrayal. Despite knowing that the basis of the story is based on truth, this did not mean that I could predict the ending. Korean cinema has mastered the art of storytelling when it comes to gripping tales, and Toxic is no exception.
I’ve never thought much about people with connections and influence, but while watching the events of Toxic unfold on the big screen, I couldn’t help but feel sick and angry at how dangerous people can be when they have money and power at their disposal. I was on the edge of my seat throughout my viewing, and I couldn’t stop the thought at the back of my mind that this story isn’t just a movie, real lives were lost and were treated as company collateral damage to make a profit.
The cinematography and direction of Toxic, as well as its story, doesn’t have you connecting with the characters on a personal level. Instead, you’re more of a ‘fly-on-the-wall’, witnessing everything falling apart around you and feeling helpless that you cannot assist with the fight.
The acting in Toxic is great too, Kim Sang-kyoung, Lee Sun-bin and Yoon Kyung-ho provide flawless performances in their roles while reminding the viewer that not everything is in black and white, and the lines between good and bad aren’t always so clean.
With the supporting cast and their characters, I feel that I wasn’t as sympathetic to their suffering as much as I could have been. This is due to the audience only meeting these characters after they’ve already lost everything, and because they have already lost everything, the film leaves little room for them to grow, displaying as one-dimensional. I applaud these actors for doing the best with what they were given to work with, however, I believe Toxic would have benefitted had we seen a little more about these minor character’s lives prior to meeting Kim Sang-kyong’s Jung Tae-hoon. But this is a minor criticism.
I left this film grateful to have learnt about an incredible true story, but also infuriated that such a disgusting and horrible thing occurred and killed thousands of people (for money) that did not have to die.
Overall, Toxic is a gripping and thrilling medical and corporate drama-mystery that exposes the story of the humidifier disinfectant incident. Toxic reminds us that the true stories in life can be the most shocking and that corporate greed is a plague on humanity.
Toxic had its Australian premiere, and screened in Melbourne as part of the 2022 Korean Film Festival in Australia thanks to Korean Cultural Centre Australia.
The film festival’s Melbourne season is on now at ACMI until Monday the 5th of September.
For more information, the festival program, and ticketing, visit: