Film: Pandemic **
Release date: 6th May 2011
Running time: 130 mins
Director: Takahisa Zeze
Starring: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Kanningu Takeyama, Tatsuya Fuji
Reviewer: Daryl Wing
Prolific Japanese auteur Takahisa Zeze (Flying Rabbits, Moon Child) is back with Pandemic, a harrowing film starring an impressive group of actors including Satoshi Tsumabuki (Dororo, The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift), Kanningu Takeyama (Memories Of Matsuko) and the much-celebrated Tatsuya Fuji (In The Realm Of The Senses, Empire Of Passion). Will this topical tale of a country threatened by a mysterious virus be the apocalyptic disaster movie it longs to be, or will it just be a calamity?
A lethal avian flu outbreak hits a small village in the Northern Philippines with the team working to contain the virus hearing unconfirmed reports that one of the residents has left the village, taking a chicken with him. Three months later, a poultry farm on the outskirts of Tokyo is found to be infected.
At a nearby hospital, doctors quickly determine that the cause of a patient’s death is not avian flu, but something much, much worse – and early estimates suggest an outbreak of this deadly plague could infect Tokyo and kill 640,000 people within weeks.
As fear quickly spreads, medical researchers race to identify and isolate the virus and to produce a vaccine. But the death toll begins to rise far more quickly than anticipated. All flights are cancelled, resulting in mass panic and chaos, and in the middle of it all, the hospital where the virus was first discovered has become a war zone. Will anyone discover a cure before it’s too late?
An old proverb reads, better a little loss than a long sorrow. Director Takahisa Zeze takes these words of wisdom and spreads its message over 130 minutes of misery and sentimental claptrap. The message is clear, and delivered during the film’s final act (if you’re lucky enough to make it that far), but if you really must lose a fly to catch a trout, surely there are ways of making an apocalyptic thriller more exciting than replacing action and chills with hospital drama best left to daytime television. On this evidence, watching a trout eat a fly would actually make for more interesting viewing.
While the basic premise of this depressing tale might sound like a rehash of Wolfgang Peterson’s impressive Outbreak (1995), watching it unfold is something else entirely; shot on a small budget, with only a handful of impressive visuals towards the end of the film as we witness Tokyo in all its desolate glory, this is perhaps the dullest disaster movie to ever grace our screens. Takahisa isn’t afraid to pull the rug from under our feet, and many characters we’ve gotten to know over the film’s duration are fatally discharged with considerable ease. It’s just a shame nobody cares. You certainly won’t be touched by it either; no matter how many times Zeze wheels out his pianist to remind us that a sad part is fast approaching.
If you’re of the opinion that any disaster film could be improved tremendously by the addition of such wonderfully touching dialogue similar to, “I’ve seen so many people die, now it’s my turn I’m scared” and a doctor screaming “Why?” when the first victim dies, in a manner that suggests he’s never seen someone kick the bucket before, then Pandemic is the movie for you. You’ll be rewarded with a truly astonishing scene in which the only bright spark, Yuji Tanaka’s sweet nurse Mito, manages to not only keep hold of her mobile after being struck down by the deadly virus for a good ten minutes without anyone noticing, but she also sends a text message to her worried child from beyond the grave. A spoiler if ever there was one, but if it stops you from wasting two hours of your life on this tosh then you’ll be grateful in the long run.
Other failings include a lack of conflict that results in a lack of thrills, and each character’s willingness to help when some would surely be running for the exit creates a world that just isn’t very believable. Yes, it’s their job to preserve life, but this is one of the deadliest viruses known to man – a cure seemingly impossible. Wouldn’t someone sneak out the back door? The acting, a disappointment when you look at the impressive cast list, veers from average to poor then back again throughout, with some characters struggling to convince when English dialogue is required, while other performances, especially the European cameos, simply stink, and would look out of their depth on children’s television.
The biggest problem though is a complete lack of empathy for any of the characters. Too many times Takahisa ditches characterization and backstory for scenes that fail to move the story forward. He introduces a romance that doesn’t satisfy, tells a story without a hint of humour which would go some way to making this experience more pleasurable, not to mention the simplest device to make his stars likeable, and bombards us with so much death you’ll be bored by the time another character succumbs. A film that’s more miserable than sad, Pandemic can’t be saved by pretty snowstorms and the pouring rain (Takahisa’s ultimately tiring party trick).
With an impressive cast and a premise to really pull at the heartstrings, Takahisa Zeze ditches the thrills, chaos and menace a deadly virus could bring to the operating table, replacing them with a plot so slow-paced it’s probably not even worth checking for a pulse – catching a cold is more fun than this coma-inducing disaster of a movie.