Kim Nam-gil (The Shameless) headlines as Jae-hyuk, a man who works in the local nuclear plant despite his father and brother having both died from radiation poisoning, much to the dismay of his mother (Kim Young-ae, Cart) and long-suffering girlfriend Yeon-joo (Kim Joo-hyun, Modern Farmer). It’s clear that corners are being cut when it comes to plant maintenance and safety, the warnings of Jae-hyuk’s colleague Pyung-Sub (Jung Jin-young, Time Renegades) falling on wilfully deaf ears, and after an earthquake strikes the region an explosion results in a massive radiation leak, putting the local population at risk. When the government, led by ruthless the Prime Minister (Lee Kyung Young, Inside Men) and a nice but essentially useless President (Kim Myung Min, Proof of Innocence) prove unwilling or unable to help, it’s down to Jae-hyuk and his fellow workers to put their lives on the line.
Coming so soon after Fukushima and being a commercial blockbuster, there was always going to be a danger of Pandora being crass or in bad taste, not least due to the excesses which so many Korean disaster films are given to. Thankfully, with Park Jung-woo at the helm the film bucks this trend, and though it does inevitably have its moments of melodrama, is far more grounded than the vast majority of its peers, and benefits greatly from being possessed of a sharp and deeply cynical social conscience. Though there’s spectacle here and set pieces, the film is generally subdued and grim, with far more of a focus on the human elements of the story, following a small group of well-fleshed out characters rather than the usual ensemble cast of doomed big name stars and their pets. As he showed with his early works Attack the Gas Station and Jail Breakers, Park is an accomplished storyteller, and one who doesn’t always take the most obvious route, and while Pandora is fairly predictable, it’s at least believable, if depressingly so. The solid character writing and earnest acting by the unflashy cast help to make the film tense in a doom-laden way, and its hard edge makes it really quite shocking in places, Park never shying away from showing the horrors of radiation in graphic detail.
Thematically, Pandora is similar to Park’s Deranged, a film which definitely deserves to be better known, and like recent hits The Tunnel and Train to Busan is relentlessly critical of the government and ruling elite, the characters of the Prime Minister and President making for a bleakly believable double act – the film is certainly well-timed, given recent political events in Korea. Even when they and their lackeys are finally galvanised into doing something practical about the unfolding disaster they’re marked by uselessness and self-motivation, and Park uses this not so much to glorify the struggle of the common people as to paint a picture of a society rife with corruption and with its boot placed firmly on their backs. At the same time, the film never loses sight of its humanity and never descends into a mere rant, its characters and plot remaining equally important as its themes.
This isn’t to say that the film is perfect, and Park unfortunately lets it go on a good half hour too long, the two hours and twenty minute running time being in definite need of some judicious trimming. While not exactly bloated in the way that others of its can be, the film’s few dips into melodrama do stand out uncomfortably from its more realistic and dour elements, and though its teary ending is undoubtedly moving, it is dragged out a little too long.
Still, these are relatively minor criticisms, and Pandora is unquestionably one of the better big-budget Korean disaster films of recent years, and a welcome return from the feisty Park Jung-woo after being away for a few years. It’s also a very important film, as is hammered home by the end credit titles, which inform the viewer that Korea currently has some 24 nuclear plans in nine cities, and that even after the Fukushima disaster, the government is pushing ahead with plans to build another 10 – food for thought indeed.
by James Mudge – EasternKicks.com