JAPAN 2009  Directed & Written by: Takahisa Zeze   Story: Takashi Hirano, Atsuyuki Shimoda Produced by: Takashi Hirano  Cinematography: Koichi Saito  Editing: Isao Kawase  Music: Goro Yasukawa Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Rei Dan, Ryoko Kuninaka, Yuji Tanaka, Chizuru Ikewaki, Takanori Takeyama, Koichi Sato, Tatsuya Fuji, Akio Kaneda, Ken Mitsuishi, Midoriko Kimura, Kyusaku Shimada, Bokuzo Masana, Erika Mabuchi, Ayaka Komatsu, Akifumi Miura, Natsuo, Taiga, Ichirota Miyagawa, Koji Sato, Dante Carver, Shiro

Japan loves doctor dramas, just as much as the country is anal about hygiene and cleanliness. Add to that a morbid fascination for self-destruction in all forms of popular culture and the Aum sect scare that until today is firmly stored in everyone’s memory (just see how nervous the country was for the 15th anniversary of the attacks this year), and you can’t help but find PANDEMIC the perfect fit for the local audience.

The surprise is that KANSEN RETTO (“Infected Islands”) scores more than well compared to any virus movie of the last decade(s). Not everyone will fall in love with the local customs, behavior and emotions displayed frequently throughout PANDEMIC – you’ll probably appreciate these only once you’re familiar with the people and the culture –, but this distinctly Japanese take on the virus / disaster movie genre may actually be the reason the movie works so well.

A young doctor, Tsuyoshi Matsuoka, is treating a patient for flu-like symptoms, just to find him dying a horrible death in the ER the day after. Despite all tests coming back negative everything points towards a new kind of super-flu virus that is spreading quickly and is lethal most of the time. As an increasing number of people in Japan shows the symptoms of the virus and hospitals struggle to cope with so many cases, the WHO takes over disease control measures, headed by Matsuoka’s former senior and girlfriend Eiko Kobayashi.

Initially the virus appears to be a form of avian flu, spreading from a chicken farm outside Tokyo, but this turns out not to be the case. The origin and type of the virus is clouded in mystery, and as Japan is spinning out of control, with hundreds of thousands dead and the country on the brink of a civil war, a race against the clock is on with Matsuoka and Kobayashi chasing after the virus’ birthplace in order to find a cure before it’s too late.

PANDEMIC doesn’t make the mistake trying to impress us with fancy special effects, an array of military weaponry or endless action sequences. Instead the film relies on its story, a very solid script and fine cast, takes a lot of time for character development and nuances and still doesn’t forget to keep its pace up. The resulting 2+ hours are tense and dense, but never rushed or fragmented. PANDEMIC is linear, logical and flowing smoothly; its conventional storytelling however doesn’t mean it chums up with the audience.

With a strong focus on the protagonists, the work of the hospital staff and the search for the virus PANDEMIC is always personal, more drama than disaster movie, churning out big emotions and not set pieces. Debating the quality of the few special effects is pointless as PANDEMIC is entirely driven by story and dialogue, but take my word for it they are perfectly acceptable.

The movie’s key message proves its eco-consciousness, the great thing about PANDEMIC however is that it doesn’t feel like a Birkenstock in 24fps. It’s grand entertainment that presses all the right buttons – after Petersen’s OUTBREAK this might very well be the second best contemporary commercial virus flick on the planet (if we leave out everything that borders on horror, SciFi or cyberpunk).

Ever since AIDS and Ebola every generation has its virus threats – caused by man, or man-made; natural diseases or bio-terror – and so virus movies will always be in fashion. PANDEMIC is as much a recapitulation of what has happened so far as it is a warning and pessimistic outlook. There’s this double-edged sword, comfort zone and fear at the same time: it’s all in our hands.


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