Pandora (2016)


Disasters bring chaos.

(2016) Disaster (Netflix) Nam-gil Kim, Jung Jin-Young, Yeong-ae Kim, Junghi Moon, Kyeong-yeong Lee, Myung-min Kim, Shin-il Kang, Se-dong Kim, Seong-mok Yoo, Dae-myeong Kim, Joo-hyeon Kim, Gang-yoo Bae, Han-jong Kim. Directed by Jong-woo Park

 

Nuclear power has been controversial for nearly half a century; the accidents at Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan have only furthered that controversy. While some countries have moved to phase out nuclear power as part of their energy production, South Korea continues to support their nuclear power program and in fact is moving to expand it.

Jae-hyuk (Nam-gil) is a technician at the Hanbyul nuclear plant near Busan. He is unenthusiastic about his employment there; his father and brother both died because of their work at the plant and he wonders if he is meant for the same fate. He lives with his mother Mrs. Seok (Yeong-ae), his sister-in-law Jung-hye (Junghi) and his nephew. He has a girlfriend, Yeon-ju (Joo-hyeon) who is pretty and encouraging but he finds it tough to get out of bed in the mornings.

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, the country’s young President Kang (Myung-min) reads a report from the Hanbyul chief engineer (Jin-young) detailing safety concerns and the company’s corner-cutting when it comes to maintenance. The idealistic President means to investigate but is thwarted by the Prime Minister (Kyeong-yeong) who is in the pocket of the corporation that runs Hanbyul.

Things are about to come to a head however; a 6.1 earthquake rocks the village and the gaskets on the coolant pipes spring some terrifying leaks. The maintenance deficiencies come to roost as the plant comes closer and closer to a major meltdown. With the cowardly management backed by the sniveling Prime Minister try to cover things up and refuse to allow the Chief Engineer to implement the measures he needs because they don’t want anyone to know what they’ve been up to. Finally, when all seems lost the technicians of Hanbyul will face an impossible choice.

Disaster films are all the rage these days in Korea and Jong-woo Park has a good one under his belt (Deranged) and this one did some major box office damage in December of last year. While most of the actors will be unfamiliar to Americans in general (unless they happen to be fans of Korean cinema) this is definitely an all-star line-up in Korea. Given the impeachment proceedings going on against the South Korean president and the extraordinary mishandling of the Sewon Ferry disaster by his government, it’s no wonder Koreans are flocking to these sorts of movies.

The movie is a mixture of disaster action and political/corporate intrigue and Park melds them seamlessly, with a slight edge going to the intrigue portions. Not that the action sequences are any slouch; some of the best effects houses in South Korea were utilized to make the nuclear plant set realistic (as no Korean power plants would allow filming in or near their facilities) and the damage is realistically done.

Also realistic is the reaction of the town populace which is mostly panic and chaos with a few notable exceptions. Nam-gil makes a decent hero and while his last scene is stretched out to near ludicrous length, his performance is nonetheless heartfelt. American audiences may have issues with the dialogue which is nearly all shouted as is traditional in Asian films. There is also an extraordinary amount of puking going on which I suppose you’d expect in a movie which depicts radiation poisoning to the levels you would imagine to be a given with a radiation leak of this magnitude.

The comic relief may be a bit too broad for American tastes and might feel inappropriate given the gravity of the subject. Still, I think American audiences who are willing to forgive that sort of thing will find this extremely entertaining and while the specific political references may go shooting over our heads, we can certainly relate to the collusion between politicians and corporate weasels to screw over the environment and the people living in it for the sake of profit. That sort of thing is sadly quite universal.

REASONS TO GO: The movie succeeds on a technical level. The general panic is accurately depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a bit over-wrought in places. The comic relief might be a bit too broad for American tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of disaster violence, some gruesome images, a bit of mild profanity, more puke than you can shake a stick at and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to be pre-sold to Netflix.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The China Syndrome
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: David Lynch: The Art Life

The Shameless (Mu-roe-han)


He's a Seoul man.

He’s a Seoul man.

(2015) Crime Drama (CJ Entertainment) Do-yeon Jeon, Nam-gil Kim, Sung-Woong Park, Do-won Gwok. Directed by Seung-uk Oh

We are victims of our own circumstances, whatever they might be. Whether we are trapped in our jobs, or trapped by our bad (or even good) decisions, wherever we are in life, that’s where we are. We can break out of our circumstances if we choose to, and if we’re willing to step out into the unknown but it requires a kind of courage that as we get older, we find that we no longer possess.

Detective Jae-gon Jung (Kim) is a lonely man. He is divorced and is hopelessly corrupt; in fact, his entire squad is essentially on the take from organized crime. He gets an assignment and not from his superiors in the police but from members of a criminal organization; Joon-gil Park (Park), a mid-level mobster with a gambling problem, has committed the ultimate sin; he’s murdered one of his own.

By their own rules, the mob can’t kill him, but they can let the cops have him…and if he gets crippled or killed during the arrest, so much the better. Park is on the run, but his weak point is his girlfriend, Hye-kyung Kim (Jeon). She is a madam in what is called a hospitality room but is essentially a brothel. Jung goes undercover, taking over as her head of security under the guise of Park’s cellmate in prison.

Although she’s initially suspicious and antagonistic with him, the two begin to warm up towards each other, finding out that they are kindred spirits. Kim is desperately lonely, her boyfriend on the run and the sexual encounters with her clients meaningless and almost perfunctory. She has accumulated a huge debt, mostly because Park has been gambling away her money and loan sharks have begun to make threatening noises against her.

Although Jung is using her to get to Park, he begins to fall for her and soon the two end up as lovers. Meanwhile, the forces that turned Jung loose to find Park are growing impatient and Park is broke, needing money to get out of the country and Kim is ready to give it to him. With everything stacked up against them, can Jung and Kim actually break away from the life they find each other in and make something better…together?

There is a heavy noir element running through the movie. Initially we see it as a bit of a wink, particularly in the jaunty jazzy score and the references that crop up early. Jung is the kind of role the late Robert Mitchum would have filled admirably and the movie would have benefitted very much by the presence of someone like him – although there really isn’t anyone like him and likely never will be.

While the crime story is really the reason for the film, it is the love story that drives it. The feeling is dark, that it is inevitable that nothing good can happen for the lovers. Regardless of whether Park is arrested or escapes, you realize quickly that it is going to be bad for Jung and Kim. Kim often disappears into the embrace of alcohol, while Jung…well, Jung is a complicated character who leaves maddening glimpses of the guy inside but the script rarely allows Nam-gil Kim to really give us much in terms of who Jung really is. He remains maddeningly enigmatic, a tortured soul who seems at every turn to choose remaining that way.

This is definitely the seedy side of Seoul, where business is crooked and crooked business is business as usual. The corruption is so integrated into every aspect of life that it is almost expected. Everybody is using everybody else to get ahead; the cynicism is palpable and pervasive. In other words, just like any really good noir.

When Jung and Kim have sex is the only time they seem to be truly alive. They both have a kind of dead-eyed demeanor throughout but when passion takes them over, the juxtaposition is really compelling. In that sense, these are masterful performances as the actors seem to be holding their passions in check throughout, waiting for just the right moment to reveal them.

The movie is a bit overly long though and adds a coda which is not only unnecessary but actually hurts the movie. There are some things about the fate of Kim and Jung that really should have been left to the imagination of the audience rather than spelling it out as precisely as it was. That last ten minutes could have been lopped off and the movie would have been better for it.

As noir thrillers go, this isn’t half-bad but the movie could have been made a bit more concise. There are enough elements to recommend it, particularly for fans of the genre and of Korean cinema in general, but it is not an enthusiastic recommendation I’m afraid. Still, that is appropriate for characters like Jung and Kim who have learned to take what they can get – and not to expect much more than that.

REASONS TO GO: Stylish but fatalistic. Sexy in all the right places.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. Somewhat convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: Sex, violence, nudity, drug/alcohol use and a ton of smoking, along with a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Oh’s second feature; his first was 2000’s Kilimanjaro but he has been active as one of Korea’s most sought-after screenwriters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Key Largo
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Goosebumps