Thursday, June 22, 2017

[Movie Review] Pandora

Starting a movie or a drama with Kim Namgil is like opening a Pandora box indeed - you never know what horrible death awaits his character by the end. Probably his own fault because no one can surmount an enormous mountains of suffering and deep, soul tearing pain as beautifully and hauntingly as him.
Even here, in this uneven and a bit too long (2:16) movie, he managed to show a fracture of his talent, and his last moments have been haunting me for months now, so as a cathartic treatment, I decided to write a bit about this movie.
Plus, Namgil-nim speaking with saturi.
Spoilers ahead, because I don't give a damn about your soft shells hiding even softer flesh.

Koreans made a movie on behalf of Japanese people for whom the Fukushima disaster is still a topic that is - in politics - shunned or even neglected. And what happened before, during and just after the tragedy is reflected in this film, bitterly so. What is more, the movie also tells a story about the Sewol ferry tragedy and about the decision paralysis in the country. This was also the first Korean movie picked by Netflix for a worldwide distribution. And others followed.
Korea has 28 nuclear plants across the country and most of them on the southern side, like the one in the film, which is prone to earthquakes. The movie was impeded for 4 years before it got a green light for production (guess what lobby opposed).

The movie starts and ends with a similar narrative - we see a group of little kids - at the beginning they sit across the bay and guess what huge constructions may be: a giant rice cooker maybe? This sepia-colored scene is somehow a foreshadowing of things to come. The little girl in the group says that her teacher called the Units "box of something" and given the title, we know what she means even without her uttering the exact words. 
At first we get to know the power plant crew, living in a small coastal town that nobody visits and the citizens have only the sea and the plant to work. The main character, Kang Jaehyeok, a bit of a lazyhead, a bit of a passive participant in this insipid life, lives with his mother, sister-in-law and her son. Turns out - his father and brother died few years back during the accident at the nuclear plant. He hates the plant and wants to get away at any chance he'll get, but so far, he's stuck in place.
Then we are introduced to the nuclear plant organization - first punch is delivered when the new director in charge is introduced - having some drinks, and the report says that he knows nothing about the nuclear energy. This was actually the first moment I thought to myself: this movie is so well researched on Korean way of governing. In the past (and I mean Goryeo and Joseon past), it often happened that a prominent function was given to "someone's son" and not to the person who was really competent. The most notorious habit was in the military: in most cases the titles and functions of local commanders were given to sons of civil families, who often knew swords only from family walls and strategies from classical books from Tang China. That happened in both Mongol invasion and later during Imjin War - commanders couldn't even give any order to protect the civilians. Example: one commander went in 1592 to hunt with falcons, and he saw the sea teeming with Japanese ships. What did he do? He sent exactly this question to the capital. You can imagine that the emissary didn't have any place to bring the reply back to. 

But this also shines a light into another problem of both modern Korea and Joseon times: the decision paralysis. In Joseon, officials didn't want to make a decision because IF the decision was wrong, they could be punished. This happened most recently during Sewol ferry tragedy and that is why there was 10 (ten) centers that coordinated the rescue (?) action. And few hours after the incident no one made a decision to save 300 drowning kids because no one wanted to take the responisbility and the eventual blame. The Coast Guard shifted the responsibility to the Ministry of Fishery, the Ministry to others, others to another others. Hours passed, kids drowned and the President made a decision the next day. Pandora is not even subtle at hinting this in the scenes with the President, unable to make a decision, unable to crush the Prime Minister on his "protect the business" mission. When he finally made a decision - it was to send the volunteers to die. There was also another horrific incident after the explosion - Park Pyeongseob (Jeong Jin-young), who wrote a whistleblowing report to the President about the 40-years old plant (especially UNIT 1) that is a disaster waiting to happen, gives an order to pour seawater to cool down the unstable reactor inside of which the pressure builds up. But seawater would damage the reactor permanently and the board is against it. The decision must be made by the Presidential aides who say that the reactor costs lots of money so they want to save it. The dome explodes, sending off a cloud of radiation, mostly Caesium-137. Then and only then Pyeongseob gets the approval for cooling the reactor with the saltwater.

And one night the rats pour from sewers and run away, the birds are restless. And few hours later - an earthquake strikes. Not very strong, not very long. In his report, Pyeongseob pointed out that the plant might be severely damaged during any incident like this, he pointed out that 1700 km. of pipes and cables were checked in under 2 months only, and the plant was given the green light after the latest inspection which was just a front cause the operator wanted to continue. His report was neglected by the President and Prime Minister ordered it to be destroyed and Pyeongseob lost job and got demoted to HR department because "his report got lots of people fired". His every order is vetoed by the boss who fears the plant would be shut down. By the end of the movie the President phones Pyeongseob and asks him for advice. Man bitterly replies: "NOW you're ready to listen to me"... This is most likely a nod towards Fukushima, TEPCO and the year 2002 when Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese-American engineer working at Fukushima plant was given an order to falsify the video to hide the broken installation. He informed NISA (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) in Japan about it. NISA informed... TEPCO that they have a traitor in their midst. Sugaoka was kicked out of Japan without the possibility to come back.

It's out of context but it was EXACTLY what Prime Minister was doing
During the earthquake a cooling system got damaged and there was a leak. So the workers went down to weld the leaking pipes, despite being warned by others that the way they're doing this only builds up the pressure somewhere else. They wanted to do this as fast they could - and they paid the price as the valves exploded blowing half the cooling tower with them. This could be avoided or at least delayed if the President allowed to perform the venting. But he ordered an evacuation of thousands of people from the area surrounding the plant which resulted in streets blocked by about every vehicle available. And the pipes exploded anyway.

The general public is kept in the dark, journalists too; the Prime Minister orders to sell the lie that it was just a "minor leak". The chaos ensues, not only in places surrounding the plant, but also in the whole country. Worse, IAEA (International Agency of Atomic Energy) learns about the incident, the leakage and impending meltdown. Foreign embassies alert their nationals to leave Korea - and chaos gets worse, thousands of people flood airports and stations. The situation gets even worse when it becomes clear that - to reduce the costs of operating the plant - the spent fuel rods were stored... wait for it... just in the next room to the reactor No 1. Only one concrete wall separates unstable and heating up reactor from the rods, immersed in the coolant (which is leaking through a 4-meters long fissure). As the operator says, with a lovely naivete - Korea has absolutely not one place to store spent fuel rods.
The workers, wounded in the explosion start to exhibit first signs of the radiation poisoning - vomiting, bleeding, dizziness. They got instantly the acute dose of well over 100 mSv (mili Sievert = 1 joule/kilogram) of caesium-137 (radioactive isotope of caesium) a product of nuclear fission of uranium-235, and to compare: the safe annual dose is around 50 mSv. And then they stayed at the plant, absorbing more and more. Problem with caesium-137 is that it is easily spreadable in nature due to a high water solubility (caesium salts).

Plant workers, abandoned by medical staff, safe for one scared young nurse, are disillusioned about the country and politicians that left them to die. So when the President asks for volunteers, they are even too tired to curse. Of course their lives mean nothing to the Blue House, they're expendable. So they refuse. But at the same time they know the death awaits them, and a horrible one from the radiation exposure, a painful wait until every organ turns to mush while skin will boil and bleed. So as Jaehyeok says: they will do it but not for that government that failed them, but to save their families and prevent a nuclear explosion.
There is also military mentioned - answering why the soldiers weren't dispatched to the site to help the firefighters dying on the scene or getting radiation poisoning, the Minister says that it was considered inhumane to send the soldiers there, because the radiation is too high and they would die. Workers, left alone by everyone, learn about this and they start to curse the country that threw them away. The scene in the makeshift hospital, now devoid of any medical staff except for the brave nurse, reminded me also of one, wonderful trait of the usual, low-class Koreans they displayed through the ages: a spontaneous partisan formation. Koreans were often abandoned by their officials and rulers, during Mongol invasion in Goryeo period, kings, court and officials fled to Ganghwa island to wait Mongols out. The country was left to plunder, so only one military clan (Choi) and lowest classes stood up to Mongols and started to fight back as guerilla. They repeated this after Japanese invasion in 1592 - they were badly damaging Japanese troops, especially their arriere-garde. And two more times: during Japanese occupation (1919-1945) and during the Korean War. Korean guerrilla warfare was already something deeply ingrained in their nature. Here we have the same situation - everyone left them, and yet the damaged and staring death in the eye plant workers managed to find a spark that allowed them to fight, not for the "fucking country" but for their relatives and friends fleeing the contaminated region.

The devised plan was idiotic, if you ask me, on the verge of a bleak success and highly risky - to collapse the tank with spent fuel rods into the lower room so that the lower room would serve as the new pool allowing to pour the coolant again.
And only one person is competent enough to put the explosives around the new tank's ceiling - so he has to stay while his colleagues seal off the room he's in. Jaehyeok ask then to be connected with his family to send them one final message. And this scene was delivering the most of the emotional punch. In disaster movie,s we have heroes that run to danger, brush off the death and welcome the demise in a berserk trance as if they didn't care. Jaehyeok decided on staying and detonating the explosives but he was far from a fearless hero. He panicked, he cried, repeatedly saying that he didn't want to die, that he did nothing to be served such fate. He was bare and raw in his most vulnerable state of a person who knew their life meant absolutely nothing, they fucked it up, and all he asks is to be remembered.

And this moment of sheer fear of death I've been remembering, reliving and thinking about. We don't get many of such real moments in movies or on TV. A desperate plea of a man who's about to die and he doesn't want to. I don't believe, as some said, it's a pompous nationalistic propaganda, Jaehyeok didn't ask his friends to die for the government or even the country. He simply said they have to die because of the government that failed them and to save their families, stopping the meltdown and the second Chernobyl. There was nothing nationalistic about it, in fact, the country as a whole got kicked in the face.

This is not an outstanding movie, it had problems with narrative line, and some people may find it anti-nuclear. I do believe people are confusing two things: showing nuclear disaster is not the same as being anti-nuclear. And one more thing: a nuclear plant operates on electricity generated by power plants. Electricity is the safety switch - it powers up the cooling system. If the electricity is cut off, the coolant does not circulate properly and the fissure starts to heat up the water - which may lead to the meltdown. So no, even nuclear energy is not 100% safe and clean. Read Blackout, there it was fantastically described.
There are still powerful lobbies and people behind the push of every energy, every technology. For some, like here, and like in Japanese TEPCO case, the profit was prioritized much more than safety. And nuclear plants really are safe - in general. But sometimes an error happens or Mother Nature shivers - and we have an iceberg hitting unsinkable Titanic.


Pictures: AsianWiki, Hancinema and my screenshots from Netflix.