“Pandora” is a Korean thriller plainly inspired by Japan’s Fukushima tsumani and nuclear plant meltdown.
It’s nicely-detailed, with decent effects, moderate suspense and a distinctly Korean approach to how this sort of calamity might go down in an Asian country where saving face, keeping “order” and maintaining authority play havoc with the public safety. More than once in “Pandora,” you’re invited to remember Korea’s occasional lapses into authoritarianism, and how much worse this worst-case-scenario would be in a place like North Korea or China.
But what first-time director Jong-Woo Park has in mind here is straight-up disaster movie — by the book, paint by numbers, every character a “type,” every wrinkle in the plot a “trope.”
A grainy “flashback” prologue shows children playing in the shadow of Hanbyul Nuclear Power Plant. “It will make the country rich!” one squeals. “Jobs” for their parents say the others.
But one little girl says (in Korean, with English subtitles), “Wait. My teacher said this was opening some kind of, ah, box.”Might that be “Pandora’s” Box?
In the story proper, we track four different story threads. There’s the family that runs the restaurant in town, with its bossy matriarch (Yeong-ae Kim). Her lazy, beer-swilling son (Nam-gil Kim) is late getting up, late for work again. His girlfriend (Kim Joo-Hyun) barely tolerates his indolence.
But they work in the same place. He’s an overalls-wearing blue collar tech, she’s a tour guide for all the folks who want to visit the 40 year old plant.
The control room inside the plant is “China Syndrome” stuffed with engineers, new staff and old. They josh about the maintenance and upgrades they’ve been able to put off.
Then there’s “The Blue House” as they call it in Korea, where the young president (Myung-Min Kim) gets a report on the shortcomings of the plant just in time to start a movie-long argument with the seasoned, “wait and see” prime minister (Kyeong-yeong Lee).
The “wait and see” thing comes up after the earthquake. That’s what breaks the “earthquake proof” plant’s plumbing and sends people at ground zero — inside and outside of the plant — into panic.
“Does it LOOK like a ‘minor accident’ to you?”
“Should we inform the president?” “He has no time for this!”
Workers heatedly debate managers about going inside the reactor — a fatal task — to save the town. None of this “Chernobyl” noble sacrifice. Engineers panicking is not a pretty sight. But imagine the low workers on the totem pole, freaking out over doors sealing the plant tight, running hither and yon trying to figure out what they’re not being told — how to save themselves.
“I want to die with my family!”
The PM is the villain of the piece, Mr. “The whole nation will panic” so “I’ll take care of this quietly.” The president makes decisions to give those closest to the disaster a chance, but that creates delays that could doom much of the peninsula.
That’s the “message” here — there are no “right answers” when things go wrong and go nuclear.
The earthquake and nuclear meltdown effects are solid, the performances properly fraught.
The grimmest scenes aren’t the hospital radiation triage tents, the police blocking civilians from fleeing the sports stadium they’ve been evacuated to with a radiation cloud approaching or those panicked — misinformed by their government — women, children and men. It’s seeing firefighters fight to douse blazes and dropping in ones and twos as the radiation they haven’t been warned or given a choice about takes them.
There aren’t many surprises or alterations in a genre formula that hasn’t changed since the heyday of Chuck Heston. But “Pandora” dramatically reminds us of the box we tend to forget about until some blunder, cost-cutting measure or Force of Nature reminds us you can’t close it once it opens.
MPAA Rating: unrated, bloody injuries, radiation burns, profanity
Cast: Kim Joo-Hyun Nam-gil Kim, Myung-Min Kim, Yeong-ae Kim,
Credits: Written and directed by Jong-woo Park
Running time: 2:16