The first instinct when reviewing Korean disaster movie Pandora – in which an earthquake sets off a nuclear reactor meltdown – is to compare it to the hugely successful series Chernobyl.
Yet this scathing movie was released a good three years before its better known slick sibling. Criticism of power, financial reliance, and damnation of self-preserving incompetence are rife from director Park Jung-woo.
Pandora is an atypical Korean movie insofar as it stays laser focused. There is no bolstering up with tone breaking comedy or general acquiescence that those in power mean well but are hampered beyond their control.
No, from the get go Pandora is vicious and takes to task how in a country with nuclear power stations all along tectonic fault lines, a Fukushima type disaster is surely a very real threat. This has the side effect of making the characters a rather sullen lot.
What Is Pandora About?
Jae-hyeok (Kim Nam-gil) is a young man desperate to leave his run down town who’s entire economy revolves around the local nuclear power station, where he reluctantly works.
Derided by his mother as a layabout and criticised by his girlfriend, he is all but ready to seek a new life aboard a fishing vessel. But after an earthquake damages the power plant he is recalled back to undergo essential repairs.
As a lead character Jae-hyoek lacks much magnetism. His presence represents more of an everyman at the mercy of events as the aging and undermaintained power plant dissolves into a dangerous state.
Bodies are needed to play out such things as powerlessness, mass hysteria, and officious incompetence. As such no character really jumps out of the screen until the alluded to ‘pandora’s box’ forces no-win scenario decisions.
When it comes to those in power Pandora points the finger of blame firmly, even with those deemed sympathetic. The weak President Kang (Kim Myung-min) and the Prime Minister (Lee Geung-young) argue over the best approach, with the PM always favouring lies and cover-up over the greater good.
Pandora makes it clear that ineffectual government is a lethal thing, as mass citizens are locked up rather than risk expose the truth.
Pandora Official Trailer
Is Pandora Worth Watching?
If the comparison is to be drawn again between Pandora and Chernobyl then it is easy to say that the former is a bleaker affair. There is no moment in court or mass exposure of incompetence.
Radiation poisoning causes visceral burns, convulsive vomiting, and destruction of hope all exacerbated by sensible voices drowned out by those above.
The special effects are used sparingly but effectively to drive home the enormity of the danger on the doorstep of many. Whilst such brutal anger is commendable, it does make the movie a difficult watch.
As most characters are pieces to be moved rather than people to connect to you are left with the tension of the disaster to experience; it is clear a happy resolution is not on the cards. When the last radioed sobs fade out the audience is left with a dark cloud above its head.
Such inevitability makes for a locked in narrative that fails to deliver any twists or turns to ‘entertain’ our interest.
Pandora is an inexorable slow march to the inevitable and retains each morsel of bitterness as it goes.
The warning is stark: nothing is more dangerous than those in whom we place the power of trust.
Words by Mike Record
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