Clearly influenced by the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in March 2011, South Korean disaster blockbuster “Pandora” is the film no mainstream Japanese director dares to make. Imagining, with harrowing realism, a man-made disaster gone catastrophic, writer-director Park Jung-woo’s uncensored depiction of political incompetence taps right into his compatriots’ current mood of anger and mistrust toward their government in the midst of President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. Resisting the temptation to entertain or offer pat optimism, Park’s commitment to a cause is what gives the yarn its stark power. The first Korean picture acquired by Netflix, it’s sure to go gangbusters locally, as well as heat up niche overseas markets.
A genre that makes ample use of Korean cinema’s leading edge in visual and special effects, disaster movies have always been safe bets at the domestic box office. While the first wave of such films, like “Haeundae” or “The Tower,” have been pure action-entertainment, the genre has recently taken on a increasingly political edge with hits like “Train to Busan” and “The Tunnel” lambasting government indifference to citizens’ suffering, in response to botched crisis management of the Sewol Ferry Accident.
South Korea is one of the world’s major utilizers of nuclear power (24 plants in nine cities across 28 counties, according to closing titles), with most plants located in the southern part of the country, which has been prone to earthquakes. The fact that the government has announced no back-up measures post-Fukushima, and instead is pushing to build 10 more reactors, has sparked a strong anti-nuke movement. Due to the project’s controversial nature, the production was in development for four years, and failed to gain access from any plant to shoot on site. Though set in an unnamed town in the southern province of Gyeongsangnam-do, domestic audiences will easily relate the action to Wolseong and Kori power plants in Gyeongju and Busan, respectively.
The film starts with a heavy allegorical ring as a couple of tykes gaze at a nearby nuclear reactor, calling it by turns a rice cooker, something that will make the country rich, and “a box that when opened will bring big trouble” — referring to the title’s Greek origin. Opposing views about nuclear power are presented by a stand-off between anti-nuke protesters and workers at Hanbyul nuclear plant.
One of the workers is mechanic Kang Jae-hyuk (Kim Nam-gil), whose father and brother were employed at the plant and died due to accidents there. Neither his mother, Ms Seok (Kim Young-ae), who runs a diner with her widowed daughter-in-law Jung-hye (Moon Jeong-hee), nor his g.f., Yeon-ju (Kim Joo-hyeon), who’s a PR officer for nuclear energy, want him to venture outside the city, yet job prospects are limited; according to one local’s remarks, since the reactor has been built, the city has seen “no fishing, no farming, no tourists.”
Soon enough, a 6.1 earthquake strikes, causing radiation to leak from a cracked cooling valve. As the workers, fearing for their own safety, hesitate to fix it, other valves burst, spraying radiated water everywhere and overheating to the point of explosion in parts of the plant. Every troubleshooting endeavor by maintenance engineer Chief Park (Jung Jin-young) is vetoed by the boss, for fear of the plant being decommissioned.
Unlike standard Korean disaster movies that pad out almost half the film with comic bantering among minor characters, “Pandora” gets straight to the point about the underlying risks of nuclear power. With thorough technical exposition, the film tracks how facilities can easily malfunction and inexorably devolve. Also atypical of Korean blockbusters, visual effects here are not employed to create pyrotechnics that are of tangential importance to the story. Instead, leading VFX company Digital Idea visualizes the full-metal anatomy of the nuclear reactor, from its looming outer form to the steampunk-like machinery inside with a grim realism that makes the meltdown so galvanizing to watch.
Also certain to stoke emotions are scenes of staggering government inefficiency, especially the prime minster’s overbearing control over president Kang Seok-ho (Kim Myung-min), which seem to have real life parallels. The cabinet’s ploys to cover up the disaster by refusing to evacuate citizens in the vicinity and even locking them up to stop mass panic recall the captain and crew’s self-preserving crimes in the Sewol Ferry tragedy.
Park’s pandemic thriller “Deranged” already fused corporate conspiracy with government ineptitude, but “Pandora” goes further than any Korean film in disparaging a government or leader so thoroughly, and expressing such devastating collective helplessness. Not only does every move to contain the danger worsen it, the turning point culminates in a lame-duck speech by Kang begging for volunteers to “sacrifice themselves on behalf of this weak government.” Comparing the scene with recent official apologies president Park made, Korean audiences will surely wonder how the lines between parody, fiction, and reality are blurred.
While reports of health issues caused by the Fukushima fallout have not publicly surfaced in Japan, the film almost revels in the grisly portrayal of suffering caused by radiation, at times risking descent into Gothic horror with closeups of charred skin, pus-oozing boils, and spewing blood. While Jae-hyuk’s romance and family drama are subsumed under the wider events, the final scenes indulge in a round of breast-beating, hysterical wailing, and thundering patriotism. Still, given the intense seriousness sustained earlier on, the film somehow must cater to the need of local audiences for cathartic melodrama.