Pandora (판도라, Park Jung-woo, 2016)

pandora (korean) posterIn a time of crisis, the populace looks to the government to take action and save the innocent from danger. A government, however, is often forced to consider the problem from a different angle – not simply saving lives but how their success or failure, decision-making process, and ability to handle the situation will be viewed by the electorate the next time they are asked who best deserves their faith and respect. Pandora (판도라) arrives at a time of particularly strained relations between the state and its people during which faith in the ruling elite is at an all time low following a tragic disaster badly mishandled and seemingly aided by the government’s failure to ensure public safety. Faced with an encroaching nuclear disaster to which their own failure to heed the warnings has played no small part, Pandora’s officials are left in a difficult position tasked with the dilemma of sacrificing a small town to save a nation or accepting their responsibility to their citizens as named individuals. Unsurprisingly, they are far from united in their final decision.

As the film opens, a group of children marvel at the towers of the new nuclear plant which has just been completed in their previously run down rural town. Not quite understanding what the plant is, they repeat snippets they’ve heard in their parents’ conversations – that the plant is a “rice cooker” that’s going to make them all rich, or it’s a “Pandora’s box” which may unleash untold horrors. Still, they seem excited about this new and futuristic arrival in their dull little village.

Flashforward fifteen years or so and one way or another all the kids now work at the plant, like it or not, because there are no other jobs available. Kang Jae-hyuk (Kim Nam-Gil) is one such conflicted soul who doesn’t disapprove of the plant in itself but has good reason to fear that the powers that be are not taking good enough care seeing that both his father and older brother were killed during a previous incident at the plant some years previously. Jae-hyuk lives with his widowed mother (Kim Young-ae), sister-in-law (Moon Jeong-Hee), and nephew (Bae Gang-Yoo) but is reluctant to marry his long-term girlfriend Yeon-ju (Kim Joo-Hyun) due to his lack of financial stability and growing disillusionment with small town life.

Meanwhile, the wife of the Korean president has been passed a file by a whistle-blower hoping to bypass the corrupt bureaucracy and go directly to the top. The file, compiled by a worried engineer, details all of the many failings at the recently reconfigured plant which has been recklessly rushed into completion without the proper safety checks and required maintenance procedures. Unfortunately the president does not have time to read the report before a 6.1 magnitude earthquake strikes and destabilises the plant to the extent that it edges towards meltdown.

Unusually, in a sense, the president is a good man who genuinely wants to do the best for his people even if he sometimes ignores sensible advice out of a desire to protect those on the ground. Unfortunately, he is at the mercy of a corrupt cabinet headed by a scheming prime minister intent on withholding information in order to push the president into cynical decision-making models predicated on the idea of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few but which mainly relate to the needs of the prime minister and his cronies in the nuclear industry.

The man in charge of the plant has only been there a few weeks and has no nuclear industry experience. His second in command is a company man and his loyalty lies with his employers – he needs to keep everything functioning and ensure the plant will not be decommissioned. The only voice of reason is coming from the chief engineer who wrote the whistle blowing report and nobly remains on site throughout the disaster putting himself at grave personal risk trying to ensure the plant does not pose a greater danger to those in the immediate vicinity.

Claiming a desire to avoid mass panic, the government attempts to order a media blackout, giving little or no information to civilians stranded in the town and fitting communications jammers to prevent the spread of information. The town is eventually given an evacuation order and orderly transportation to a shelter but once there the townspeople are kept entirely in the dark. When they become aware of the full implications of the disaster and try to leave independently, they are locked in while officials flee and leave them behind.

Conversely, the emergency services are hemmed in by regulations which state they cannot act because they would be putting themselves at unacceptable risk. Kang Jae-hyuk, despite his earlier irritation with his place of work, abandons his own cynicism to walk back into the disaster zone to help his friends still trapped inside. The president nobly refuses to order anyone to tackle the disaster directly knowing that it would mean certain death but opts to appeal for volunteers willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Unexpectedly, he finds them. The president is well-meaning but ineffectual, the government is corrupt, and the emergency services apparently overburdened with regulation while under-regulated commercial enterprises put lives in danger. The only force which will save the Korean people is the Korean people and its willingness to sacrifice itself for the common good even in the face of such cynical, self-interested greed.

Despite the scale of the disaster, Pandora takes its time, eschewing the kind of black humour which typifies Korean cinema disaster or otherwise. Serious rigour, however, goes out of the window in favour of overwrought melodrama, undermining the underlying messages of widespread societal corruption from corporations cutting corners with no regard for the consequences to politicians playing games with people’s lives. The powers that be have opened Pandora’s Box, but the only thing still trapped inside is men like Kang Jae-hyuk whose disillusioned malaise soon gives way to untempered altruism and eventually offers the only source of hope for his betrayed people.


Original trailer (English subtitles available from menu)

Derailed (두 남자, Lee Sung-tae, 2016)

derailed posterThe best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as the old saying goes, but for four down at heels street kids even their meagre attempts to evade a desperate situation land them in even more trouble than they’ve ever been in before. The debut feature from director Lee Sung-tae, Derailed (두 남자, Doo Namja) is bleak and gritty though underpinned by an ironic sense of love and connection which is itself often “derailed” or subverted as genuine feeling becomes a tool to be exploited in the ongoing war between those fighting amongst themselves to get a hand on the bottom rung of the ladder.

A makeshift family of four homeless kids and runaways made up of two teenage couples fights to survive in the backstreets of Seoul. With no practical means to support themselves, Jun-il (Minho), his girlfriend Ga-young (Da-eun), friend Bon-gil (Lee You-jin) and Bon-gil’s girlfriend Min-kyung (Baek Soo-min) are often forced to resort to low-level crime just to get something to eat. Running low on supplies the gang try to steal a car but the plan goes awry when an old enemy, the former boyfriend of Ga-young who blames Jun-il for the prison sentence he’s just been released from, arrives prompting the gang to flee.

Out of options their next plan is a dangerous, possibly unpleasant one – a prostitution scam. Ga-young being a little braver than Min-kyung puts herself forward as the bait and waits for a randy guy with underage tastes to pick her up in a dingy back alley before taking her to a hotel. Once there she needs to text the boys who will march in, rescue her, and blackmail the John. What they didn’t reckon on was that their target would be a big guy and a petty thug operating on the fringes of the sex trade. The boys manage to knock the irritated bruiser, Hyung-seok (Ma Dong-Seok), out and the gang steals his wheels too but they’ve messed with the wrong guy. Hyung-seok calls his buddies, tracks them down, roughs them up and then makes them an offer they can’t refuse. In payment for the damage, inconvenience, and humiliation, Ga-young can work off the debt in one of his “karaoke bars”. Or, he could break Jun-il’s face, choice is theirs.

Jun-il begins the film with a voiceover about his life on the streets. “Being nice is being stupid” he tells us. He has a point. When you’re trapped at the bottom it’s every man for himself, you can’t trust anyone and kindness is always a weakness. Yet Jun-il is “nice”, in a sense. The unofficial daddy of the group, he takes care of the others and refuses to leave anyone behind, hungry, or afraid. It’s no surprise then that he feels so personally responsible for the fate that’s befallen his girlfriend, Ga-young. Despite Ga-young’s pleas to keep himself safe and take care of the others, Jun-il goes to great lengths to try and get the money to buy her back by paying off the impossibly high debt.

Hyung-seok, despite running a chain of seedy “karaoke bars” which straddle the line between providing female company and outright prostitution is also a committed family man with beloved teenage daughter of his own. Apparently, Hyung-seok’s business enterprises have taken a tumble recently, enough to have his wife complaining though it seems unclear if she knows exactly what her husband’s line of work entails. This crisis could not have come at a worse time for him but even if he expresses surprise, concern, and mild outrage that Ga-young’s mother tells him to get lost when he threatens to harm her daughter unless she pays up, Hyung-seok does not seem to see the link between this vulnerable teenager and his own elegantly attired little girl.

To make matters worse, Hyung-seok eventually teams up with the gang’s arch nemesis, Ga-young’s ex, to destroy the band of four as thoroughly as possible. The eventual intervention of the police is perhaps useful and well-meaning, but merely adds another motivating force to this already complicated set of intersecting vendettas. Trapped between a traumatic past and a hopeless future, these are kids whose lives have become so completely derailed that there is almost no possibility of righting them. Family betrays, love fails, friendship collapses, being nice is being stupid but in a world filled with so much corruption it might just be the only chance left.


Derailed was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)