Pandemic (Kansen retto) is a 2009 Japanese film which stars Japanese heartthrob Satoshi Tsumabuki and directed by prolific filmmaker Takahisa Zeze who did a number of previous films from horror, drama to even soft pornography. This film caught my interest simply because of the fact that this was shot on location in the Philippines. Moreover, being a doctor myself, I love to watch medical dramas and this film reminds me of Wolfgang Petersen’s 1995 film Outbreak which was a very memorable film for me as it was the first PG-13 film I managed to sneak into (I was around 11 at that time). Since then, few ‘outbreak’ films managed to be as enthralling as Petersen’s film, and the recent ‘Andromeda Strain’ miniseries also bombed. So, I decided to pick this up for several reasons including the hunger for a medical thriller involving outbreaks.
The film begins somewhere in the Philippines (it must be somewhere in the Cordillera region with the prominence of rice terraces in the background) where an outbreak of bird flu is being contained by WHO personnel headed by Dr. Eiko Kobayashi (Rei Dan). However, an infected person manages to sneak out of the quarantine area. At an unspecified time therafter, somewhere in Japan, Dr. Matsuoka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) treats a person at the provincial ER who has flu symptoms but seemingly dies in their hands. Soon, a horde of sick people with similar symptoms appear everywhere and an outbreak seems to be happening.
Ah yes, it’s a very simple premise but the Japanese are not contented with such simple drivel and they decide to make a ridiculously convoluted plot out of this. More than a dozen plot lines are introduced most of which doesn’t make sense or doesn’t even bear any relation to the main story, only to have them suddenly disappear in the middle of the film. There are several issues with the story, and it just doesn’t make for a very cohesive whole. This film doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be. It tries to be a drama, a thriller, a social commentary, a character study and an action film all at the same time such that plot holes appear everywhere and there’s an almost total absence of consistency. Sometimes, such films work, but Pandemic is filled with such pacing issues that it becomes a total bore near the end. The director continues to push the limits of this movie resulting in a film that’s an hour too long. (This film clocks in at 2 hours and 15 minutes).
Now, this isn’t the worst Japanese film I’ve seen, but it certainly isn’t a masterpiece. In fact some things here work. The execution may be a bit lazy, but when this film delivers, there’s a certain charm to it that it’s sad the majority of the film just couldn’t keep up. In one of the most moving scenes, a mother and daughter have a very dramatic final moment made even more melodramatic thanks to the help of wait for it a mobile phone! It’s so typical Japanese that I found it amusing. This film can even be unintentionally funny and the culprit is the bad ENGRISH the cast attempts. It baffles me how a supposedly well known WHO doctor can speak so bad english it’s hardly comprehensible and funny. Some of the special effects are even laughable-check for a badly composited CG helicopter early on in the film. Also, later on in the film, the source of the virus is located and it’s in a recently made independent fictional country somewhere in Southeast Asia, but whole place looks so unmistakably like the Philippines. I had to roll my eyes. The moments of greatness in this film are few and far in between which is potentially frustrating. Fortunately, Pandemic is lucky to have beautiful cinematography and an effective musical score to keep viewers from walking out.
Here’s my major beef with this movie, this film is full of glaring medical errors, but if you’re not from the medical field you probably won’t mind this and will find the ER scenes intense and riveting. Frankly, I found those scenes rather funny but of course it was never the intention of the filmmakers to create funny scenes out of a ‘code’. Case in point, a patient undergoes cardio pulmonary arrest, and the doctors start to administer CPR, and epinephrine, BUT they don’t intubate the patient just so she could wake up one last time and say her last words before dying! This happens actually more than once in the film, and had me laughing out loud. I also wonder if they do this in Japan but when they start the code, they call out ‘BOSMIN 1 amp!!” I actually wondered what BOSMIN was and had to research only to find out it was a brand name for epinephrine, duh… We don’t do that here and it’s actually quite more dramatic to scream “EPI!!!” but that’s just me. Now, if you’re not from the medical field then you can disregard this whole paragraph because true enough the ER scenes are very well orchestrated and quite believable for those who can be fooled.
The acting in this movie isn’t up to par with the best Japanese films out there and the bad Engrish makes it worse. The characters do look believable even though they just look too hot and too fresh to pass for a doctor. There is minimal character development and when a dozen characters are introduced only a few will get the right treatment. A cast this big requires a meatier screenplay but unfortunately there is none. In fact, when the credits roll, there is a montage of the characters post-outbreak and you’ll wonder how this nurse suddenly turn out to become a doctor when the whole film suggested he was gonna breakdown sooner or later, and it ultimately comes out as lazy and unbelievable.
Now having trashed this film in 6 paragraphs, it’s very hard to recommend this film. There are a couple of great moments but you have to endure the mediocrity of the rest of the film. If you’re fine with that, then watch this movie and prepare some tissues when the movie kicks into emotional high gear near the end (and look out for that mobile phone scene!). The movie ends with this thought provoking quote “Even if the world ends tomorrow, plant an apple tree today”. This might as well be a metaphor for the film. The filmmakers must have thought “even if this will turn out to be a bad movie, let’s add some more plot here, more characters there, let’s make this whole thing more complicated than it already is!” I was recently in the impression that Japanese cinema is currently in a slump and this film is a good example of that. If you want to watch end of the world movies, this might be your cup of tea. Otherwise, skip if you can.