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)

Suddenly in the Dark (깊은밤 갑자기, Go Yeong-nam, 1981)

suddenly-in-the-darkEverybody ought to have a maid, goes the old adage, but finding one you can trust can be a tall order. Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid clearly sounds a warning call to husbands everywhere not to be tempted by the enticements of pretty young girls or conniving social climbers with designs on upending the domestic order by supplanting the legitimate wife from within her own home. The Housemaid is melodrama rewritten as horror in which a parasitical force colonises the domestic environment hell bent on taking it over through a subversion of its binding yet taboo foundation – sexual desire. Twenty years later, Suddenly in the Dark (깊은밤 갑자기, Gipeun Bam, Gapjagi) returns to the same theme but from a different angle. A once harmonious household is suddenly turned upside down following the introduction of a second female, provoking a series of crises within the already strained mind of its wife and mother.

Lepidopterist Kang Yu-jin (Yoon Il-bong) returns home after three weeks away chasing butterflies and is warmly greeted by his faithful wife, Seon-hee (Kim Young-ae), and their loving daughter. Seon-hee looks on while her husband shows off some slides of his latest finds to his colleagues but is disturbed by the incongruous presence of a shamanic statue, somehow mixed in with the shots of rare butterflies. The creepy doll-like figure continues to haunt Seon-hee who finds herself in a state of agitation regarding her husband’s frequent absences.

She is then, fairly non-plussed when Yu-jin returns from another trip with a strange young girl in tow. Essentially kind but also absent minded and a little insensitive, Yu-jin has picked up a waif and stray, recently orphaned and alone, with the idea of killing two birds with one stone by taking her into his house as a maid. On hearing Yu-jin’s explanation, Seon-hee reconsiders and is excited to get both some much needed domestic help and a degree of companionship in her otherwise lonely life. The girl, Mi-ok (Lee Ki-seon), is a little strange but seems grateful to have found a place to belong. Seon-hee, however, gradually becomes alarmed firstly by Mi-ok’s youth and beauty, and later by the presence of the same shamanic statue that’s been haunting her all this time among Mi-ok’s few belongings. Increasingly unhinged and paranoid, Seon-hee becomes convinced that her new maid has seduced her husband and means to kill her by any means possible.

Like The Housemaid, Suddenly in the Dark turns on the parasitical threat of an outsider within the family unit. Focussing on the women rather than the temptation and fall of the man of the house, the narrative shifts away from a crisis of male desire and responsibility to the fear and insecurity of the neglected, lonely housewife intentionally isolated from society at large yet under appreciated and often bored at home. By all appearances, the Kangs have made a fairly nice life for themselves with a spacious, if remote, country villa filled with nicknacks and elegant furniture, and seem to have a happy and fulfilled marriage. However, Yu-jin is often away for long stretches of time and even when home is often too occupied with work to appreciate his wife and daughter.

Seon-hee appears to have only one real “friend” who seems to be the sort of woman who likes to talk people down and undermine the happiness of others to make herself feel better. Consequently, she’s filled Seon-hee’s mind with lots of imagined troubles. Women over thirty might as well be sixty when it comes to male attention, she says. Suddenly throwing Seon-hee into a morass of uncertainty regarding her husband’s growing indifference towards her as he retreats to the spare room to finish writing his book, Eun-yeong is then quick to disregard Seon-hee’s distress over the threat posed by her new maid, refusing her help at the very time it’s most needed.

Mi-ok moves between an innocent young girl clutching the talisman left to her by her mother like a child her doll, and a predatory sex fiend corrupting and possessing Seon-hee’s husband aiming to displace her from her rightful position in this ordinary middle-class world. Aside from Seon-hee’s subjective perception, Yu-jin seems mostly indifferent or genially paternal in his dealings with Mi-ok, and even her caustic friend Eun-young remarks that she doesn’t think Mi-ok is all that pretty after all. In fact, the only person to be struck by Mi-ok’s physical beauty is Seon-hee who finds herself personally bathing her new maid, caressing her lithe and youthful body and remarking on the beauty of her skin. Insecure of her own ageing appearance, Seon-hee is, in one way or another, desirous of Mi-ok’s youthful figure, either jealously wishing to possess and wear it for herself, or possess it in a more obvious, externalised way.

Even if Seon-hee describes Mi-ok’s beauty as striking enough to attract even a woman, any latent desire on her own part is left on the level of psycho-sexual subtext rather than directly addressed even if each of the lingering shots of Mi-ok’s naked body are from Seon-hee’s POV and her (perhaps fantastical) observations of Mi-ok and her husband making love are entirely focussed on the younger woman.

Where Suddenly in the Dark diverges from its closer genre relatives is in its shamanistic themes as Seon-hee finds herself haunted by the creepy talisman and its later personification as Mi-ok before finally perhaps becoming the image herself. Shamanism had been aggressively suppressed in recent history, often viewed distastefully as a remnant of a backwards, superstitious age. Though Yu-jin insists that the doll is just a doll and holds no power, forcing Seon-hee to stay in the same room with it to overcome her irrational fear of a bit of old wood, the ancient ways work their magic on her, adding to her madness and ultimately provoking the final, psychedelic rampage.

Through the disorientating, kaleidoscopic butterfly vision which fractures Seon-hee’s fragile world view, Go creates a strange and eerie atmosphere of uncertainty as perception and reality diverge into opposing poles. Taking advantage of the recently relaxed censorship codes to further enhance the film’s erotic quality, Suddenly in the Dark is a psychedelic tour de force with its glass bottom view, green tinted shamanistic visions, taxidermy filled creepy mansion, and constantly shifting uncertainty born of spiritual and mental battling inside its heroine’s soul. A fantastic example of esoteric Korean horror, Suddenly in the Dark is an important rediscovery for the genre’s history but also a fascinating zeitgeisty character study which refuses definitive interpretation.


Recently released on blu-ray by Mondo Macabro with English subtitles (currently sold out, second pressing released 2017)

Mondo Macabro trailer (dialogue free, NSFW, quite creepy)

Cart (카트, Boo Ji-young, 2014)

cartUp until very recently, many of us lucky enough to live in nations with entrenched labour laws have had the luxury of taking them for granted. Mandated breaks, holidays, sick pay, strictly regulated working hours and overtime directives – we know our rights, and when we feel they’re being infringed we can go to our union representatives or a government ombudsman to get our grievances heard. If they won’t listen, we have the right to strike. Anyone who’s been paying attention to recent Korean cinema will know that this is not the case everywhere and even trying to join a union can not only lead to charges of communism and loss of employment but effective blacklisting too. Cart (카트), inspired by real events, is the story of one group of women’s attempt to fight back against an absurdly arbitrary and cruel system which forces them to accept constant mistreatment only to treat their contractual agreements with cavalier contempt.

Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah) is a loyal employee at the Mart. She’s had zero penalty points for five whole years and has been told that she’s about to be transferred from a temp worker contract to a regular employee position. Run more like a cult than a supermarket, the Mart’s workers all wear pristine blue and white uniforms and recite the dramatic sounding company credo every morning, vowing to increase sales whilst honouring customer service, and are instructed to say “Welcome Beloved Customer!” to each and every visitor. Eager to take on extra overtime with no extra pay and always at the beck and call of brusque manager Choi (Lee Seung-joon), Sun-hee is respected by her colleagues but perhaps not always liked as her goody two-shoes persona both makes them look bad and encourages the management to continue taking advantage.

Sun-hee’s dreams are about to crumble when the evil corporate suits at HQ decide it would be cheaper to fire all the temp workers and use outsourced labour instead. Despite all her long years of hard work and sacrifice, not only is she not getting her secure position, she might not have a job at all. Some of the other women decide they’ve had enough with their poor working conditions and it’s worth taking the chance on forming a union to fight head office together. Sun-hee is reluctant but is eventually convinced to become one of the spokespeople, after all, if they won’t listen to miss five years no penalties, who will they listen to?

It’s worth asking the question why all these terrible jobs with low pay and frequently exploitative conditions are being done exclusively by women. All of the workers on temporary contracts are female from the cleaning staff to the shelf stackers and cashiers, but all come from different backgrounds from young university graduates to old ladies and ordinary working wives and mothers. The management is unwilling to listen to the concerns of their staff because they are “only women”, “working for pocket money” and should just be grateful that the store gave them something to do rather than being bored at home. Pointing out that many of these women are single mothers or live in difficult economic circumstances meaning they need that money to eat would likely not go down well with these fiercely conservative, wealthy executives whose only response is to tell the women not to be so silly and to stop making a fuss over nothing because the men have business to do.

After just ignoring the women fails and they decide to go on strike eventually occupying the store for a longterm sit in, the company go on the image offensive, offering minor concessions including the reinstatement of some, but not all, workers and other small improvements designed to guilt some of the employees with more pressing circumstances to cross the picket line. Eventually, they go to the extreme measures of employing armed thugs and riot police to remove the women by force. In contrast with other similarly themed films from other countries, there is no attempt to get the press onside to expose the company’s workings and the only news reports seen in the film are extremely biased, painting the women as selfish loonies making trouble for everyone by refusing to shut up and accept the status quo.

Following a fairly standard trajectory, the main narrative thrust is the gradual blossoming of near brainwashed and timid employee Sun-hee into a firebrand campaigner for social justice. Through being encouraged to stand up for the other women, Sun-hee becomes concerned not just with her own treatment but the general working environment in Korea. This new found indignation also helps rebuild her relationship with her sullen teenage son after he experiences some workplace discrimination of his own which his mother is able to sort out for him now that she is not prepared to simply smile, nod, and apologise every time someone attempts to get their own way through intimidation.

Cart treats an important issue with the kind of levity and interpersonal drama which make it primed for a screen one hit rather than a later night run in screen five catering to those already aware of the issues. It probably isn’t going to agitate for any direct social change and according to the final caption the outcome of the original incident was more of a bittersweet accomplishment rather than an outright victory. Still, the fight goes on, even if you find yourself ramming a supermarket trolley into a riot officer’s shield to get the message across – an effect which Cart mimics in its quest to ensure as many people as possible get the memo that the time for passive acceptance has long since passed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)