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)

Confidential Assignment (공조, Kim Sung-hoon, 2017)

confidential assignmentSouth Korean cinema has a fairly ambivalent attitude to its policemen. Most often, detectives are a bumbling bunch who couldn’t find the killer even if he danced around in front of them shouting “it was me!” whereas street cops are incompetent, lazy, and cowardly. That’s aside from their tendency towards violence and corruption but rarely has there been a policeman who gets himself into trouble solely for being too nice and too focussed on his family. Confidential Assignment (공조, Gongjo), though very much a mainstream action/buddy cop movie, is somewhat unusual in this respect as it pairs a goofy if skilled and well-meaning South Korean police officer, with an outwardly impassive yet inwardly raging North Korean special forces operative.

In the South, Gang (Yu Hae-jin) is hot on the trail of a suspect he’s been chasing for quite some time but just as he’s finally about to catch him, his phone starts ringing. The cute ringtone featuring a little girl’s voice saying “daddy, pick up – don’t pretend to be working” is impossible to ignore and so Gang answers, chats to his daughter, and lets the suspect get away. In the dog house at work, Gang winds up with all the rubbish jobs before finally being saddled with a “special assignment” – babysitting a North Korean policeman as part of a collaborative detail chasing a possible defector/dangerous criminal the North are keen to drag back home for possibly inhumane treatment.

The Northerner, Lim (Hyun Bin), has his own reasons for chasing the criminal in that he is the only surviving member of a squad wiped out when a superior officer decided to go rogue and run off with a set of plates for printing counterfeit money. The North need the plates back, but Lim’s motives are personal more than merely patriotic and what he wants is vengeance for the death of someone close to him rather than protecting the embarrassing secret of North Korea’s counterfeit currency conspiracy.

For obvious reasons neither of the two men is able to trust the other but the confusion and suspicion is only increased by Gang’s total lack of knowledge about the case. All he knows is that they’re looking for a defector – no more, no less. Lim isn’t happy about having a South Korean cop getting in his way and quickly ditches him as soon as possible only for Gang to turn on his ace detective abilities and eventually end up at the same place through policeman’s instinct. Gradually a sort of grudging camaraderie builds up between the two as they’re forced to spend more time together and their odd couple buddy cop antics become the film’s main draw.

Lim, knowing nothing of life in the South yet suspicious of Gang, goes along with some of Gang’s goofier attempts to rein him in such as extended gag in which he gets him to put on an ankle bracelet by telling him that it’s a secret detective’s badge, reassuring him that his is in the cleaners, only for him to meet another suspicious type out on the road. So that he can keep track of him better, Gang’s superiors order him to take Lim home so he can watch him day and night much to the consternation of his wife but delight of his slightly younger sister-in-law who is instantly smitten by Lim’s chiseled features. Lim reacts to all of this with obvious vigilance but comes to like and respect Gang’s family who eventually welcome him into their home without reservation, even taking pains to try cooking North Korean food when he appears reluctant to join them at mealtimes.

Never quite engaging with the political subtext, Confidential Assignment is less about North/South co-operation than it is about complementary skills and the creation of an unexpectedly complete buddy cop unit. Gang is instantly impressed (and a little scared) by Lim’s obvious physical capabilities as he leaps from high balconies and fights off a whole room of bad guys armed only with soggy toilet roll, but Lim also comes to respect Gang’s bravery, kindness, and dedication to his family. Confidential Assignment might not be the most nuanced cinematic portrayal of North/South relations but its good-natured warmth, silly comedy, and impressively staged action scenes make it one of the most entertaining.


Confidential Assignment was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Yellow Sea (황해, Na Hong-Jin, 2010)

yellow sea korean posterReview of Na Hong-Jin’s The Yellow Sea (황해, Hwang Hae, AKA The Murderer) – revised form of a piece first published by UK Anime Network in March 2012.


Gu-Nam (Ha Jung-Woo) is a taxi driver with a gambling problem. If the gambling wasn’t enough to get him into trouble, he’s also in debt to some gangsters over the money for his wife’s passage to South Korea. His wife was meant to be sending the money she’d make there back to him and their daughter to help pay off the debt, but no one’s heard from her in months. The obvious assumption is that she’s made a new life for herself and doesn’t want to be found, but Gu-Nam can’t quite bring himself to believe it. As a Joseonjok – a Chinese Korean from the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Gu-Nam had little chance of living an honest and prosperous life. Disowned by both China and Korea, many Joseonjoks are forced to resort to criminality in order to survive.

Just as it seems things are about to hit a crisis point, Gu-Nam receives an interesting job opportunity. Myung-ga (Kim Yun-Seok), the dog seller at the market, suggests Gu-Nam go to South Korea, kill a prominent businessman, look for his wife and return back to China (with the businessman’s thumb for proof). Assuming all goes well, Gu-nam will receive the pin number for an account with 57,000 Yuan, maybe return with his wife in tow or at least find out once and for all what the situation is between them, and finally get these gangsters off his back.

Still, sneaking into South Korea and committing a murder – it’s a big ask, and first off Gu-Nam rejects the idea out of hand but one conversation with his decidedly tough mother later and Gu-Nam has accepted. However, when he gets to Korea he finds things aren’t as simple as Myung-Ga made out. There seems to be a much bigger game in play than Gu-nam bargained for and it’s not long before he’s running from the police, gangsters, and just about everyone else.

If there’s one thing there’s a lot of in this film, it’s running. It’s difficult to think of another film that manages to make a good old fashioned foot chase quite so exciting. The set pieces are astonishing – multi-car pile-ups, police driving into and over each other, an extended chase sequence through a cargo boat – the list goes on, all with Gu-nam running desperately towards the camera. Propelled by pure survival instinct and later an intense need for revenge and an explanation, Gu-nam keeps running no matter what is coming for him.

One of those things is, of course, Myung-ga who’s now got a total mess on his hands that’s threatening to derail all of his current business arrangements (well, except the dog selling – something to fall back on). If there’s another thing there’s a lot of in this film, it’s stabbing (and later axing). Luckily for him, it seems Myung-ga is something of an expert at this as we find out in one scene where we see him, badly wounded, enter a room full of angry gangsters – the camera cuts away and we return to find all of the gangsters seemingly dead with very little fuss. He even tries to kill someone with a lamb bone at one point! Myung-ga is certainly not someone one would want to be meeting on a dark night (or ever buy a dog from). He is though, one of the most compelling film villains of recent years.

Speaking of stabbings, The Yellow Sea is a very violent and extremely bloody film. If you’re well versed in Korean crime dramas, you might be aware that South Korea has very tight gun laws, so much so that not even the toughest gangsters carry guns. Consequently what you have here is a lot of people sneaking around trying to get the drop on each other to stick the knife (or occasionally, hatchet) in. Obviously, it’s much quieter than gunfire but also much messier and much more physical. The only guns in the film are those which belong to the police, who are largely depicted as bumbling idiots who can’t tell one end of a gun from the other.

This Bounty Films release (distributed by Eureka in the UK) is the shorter 140 minute ‘Director’s Cut’. There is, however, some controversy about whether it really is a director’s cut or an international version prepared by the film’s co-producers Fox International. For the record, it runs about sixteen minutes shorter than the version seen in Korea. Despite being the shorter version, The Yellow River does still feel a little long at times and really pushes the ideal running time for a thriller of this kind. Nevertheless it does manage to keep the momentum going throughout and even has a streak of morbid humour running right through it.

A sad meditation on the futility of life, particularly for those who find themselves at the bottom of the pile and are forced to scrap like dogs for the little other people have left behind, The Yellow Sea is an exciting addition to the recent wave of Korean crime thrillers. Following on from his impressive debut The Chaser, The Yellow Sea certainly catapults director Na Hong-jin right into the top tier of Korean cinema.


The Yellow Sea is available on DVD and blu-ray from Eureka in the UK and on DVD from 20th Century Fox in the US.