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The Korean thirst for movies about government and corporate malfeasance continues unabated in Pandora, the latest in a string of hit disaster epics to come out of the ROK in the last year or so (Train to Busan, Tunnel). Throwing in a natural catastrophe in the form of an earthquake as well as a nuclear power generator meltdown for good measure, Pandora ticks off all the current societal scares and packs them into one slightly bloated, often-shrieking action drama that nevertheless gets the job done despite its worst narrative instincts.
Pandora was a strong performer in December at home and should do reasonably well this spring when it debuts on Netflix (an ideal outlet) in the U.S., given its niche but fervent audience. A lack of buzzy stars won’t hurt its chances in overseas markets, where it could find a life in Asia-focused festivals, and where the Korean brand still has pull.
Director Park Jung-woo will be familiar to Korean movie buffs as the writer of the underrated farce Attack the Gas Station, and the 2002 comedy Jail Breakers. But it is his most recent film, the outbreak thriller Deranged, whose DNA can be found in Pandora, right alongside the specter of a September earthquake in Gyeongju, Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, and the winter impeachment of Korea’s president for corruption.
Something of a Frankenstein’s monster in its references and construction, Pandora has a little Towering Inferno in it, a little zombie apocalypse drama and a lot of Armageddon, but not so much in terms of whistleblower thrillers (The China Syndrome); a single engineer is blown off by politicians, and he never really does approach the press. The story starts with a flashback wherein four childhood friends ponder the purpose and mystery of the nuclear plant that’s just opened in their town. One references the Greek Pandora’s box myth, and we’re off to the races.
Hanbyul plant mechanic Jae-hyuk (Kim Nam-gil) lives with his mother, Mrs. Seok (Kim Young-ae, The Attorney), sister-in-law Jung-hye (Moon Jeong-hee, who starred in Park’s Deranged), and nephew Min-jae. He’s miserable in the depressed southern town, and desperately wants out, but feels duty-bound to stay with his family; Jae-hyuk’s father and brother both died as a direct result of working at Hanbyul. Mrs. Seok resents the plant almost as much as he does. Meanwhile in Seoul, youthful, idealistic President Kang (Kim Myung-min) reads a report by Hanbyul’s Chief Park (Jung Jin-young, Miracle in Cell No. 7), smuggled to him by his wife, about safety concerns and maintenance corners being cut at Hanbyul. Needless to say, there’s a venal Prime Minister (Lee Kyoung-young, Netflix’s Sense8) who’s doing his best to hide certain facts from the president and protect corporate interests.
This familiar set-up is sketched out by the 15-minute mark (when the rats literally start fleeing), predominantly via a great deal of yelling about how no one is listening, those are not the orders and so on, raising questions about how writer-director Park plans on filling the other two hours (the short answer: he doesn’t quite). After the ratty hints, the earthquake hits, shifting the focus briefly to Jae-hyuk’s family and girlfriend Yeon-ju (relative newcomer Kim Joo-hyeon), before heading back into Hanbyul, where a meltdown is imminent by minute 30. The rest of the story tracks various characters as they try to evacuate, survive radiation poisoning, and ultimately sacrifice themselves for the greater good (in the town), or reassert political control and do what’s right (in Seoul). In between, mass panic erupts when a deadly cloud of radiation starts to spread across the Korean peninsula, and it appears there’s no way to stop the reactor’s coolant leak short of someone volunteering for a suicide mission.
A roster of Korean industry heavyweights had a hand in Pandora, among them effects supervisor Lee Sung-kyu (Train to Busan, Taegukgi), mixing purpose-built sets with a healthy dose of CG, and cinematographer Choi Young-hwan, a veteran of high impact action (The Berlin File, The Thieves). The technical polish leaves Park plenty of room for the subtlest of criticism, most overt during an epilogue that notes Korea is building nuclear power stations while everyone else is shutting them down. Oddly, Pandora attacks the tech itself, only gently admonishing a corporate structure that values profit over safety.
But it is the humanity that is front and center, and Park lays it on thick. Unfortunately, like so many action, adventure or otherwise standard thrillers these days, Pandora wears out its welcome; it’s simply too long. After the irradiated mechanics make the selfless decision to go back inside and repair the station, Jae-hyuk’s farewell to his family drags out to the point of numbing, and the scene eventually loses what pathos it generated. It’s a shame too, because Kim’s quiet moments ring most true after the two hours of hollering (rather than acting) that came before them. He admits he’s scared, and doesn’t want to die — unusual for most resigned, manly heroes — and his teary good-bye is a lovely complement to the eerily barren streets and the president’s stoic internal conflict.
Production company: CAC Entertainment
US distributor: Netflix
Cast: Kim Nam-gil, Jung Jin-young, Kim Young-ae, Moon Jeong-hee, Lee Kyoung-young, Kim Myung-min, Kang Shin-il, Kim Dae-myeong, Yoo Seung-mok, Kim Joo-hyeon, Bae Gang-yoo, Kim Han-jong
Director: Park Jung-woo
Screenwriter: Park Jung-woo
Producer: Baek Kyung-sook
Executive producer: Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography: Choi Young-hwan
Production designer: Kang Seung-yong
Costume designer: Shim Hyun-seob
Editor: Park Gok-ji
Music: Jo Young-wook
World sales: Contents Panda
No rating, 136 minutes
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