Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE - By Mag­gie Lee

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 Jeonghee), 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 close-ups 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. — Reuters

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