Best known for his acclaimed work on zombie thriller blockbuster Train to Busan and supernatural horror series Hellbound, South Korean auteur Yeon Sang-ho has proven adept at grounding dark post-apocalyptic scenarios with just the right balance of emotion, suspense, comedy and action. That streak continues with his latest film on Netflix, JUNG_E.
Set in the latter half of the 22nd century, this sci-fi thriller takes place in a dystopia where Earth has become uninhabitable due to climate change. Pockets of humanity have migrated to the stars, living in city-sized space stations called “shelters”. Predictably, a decades-long civil war has broken out between dissenting shelters in the orbital colony; even on the brink of extinction, people will still find reasons for conflict.
In an effort to end the strife, a tech company called Kronoid Lab begins an ambitious project: cloning human brains to develop battlefield A.I. Its primary goal is to replicate the consciousness of legendary war hero, Yoon Jung-e (Kim Hyun-joo), who has been in a coma for 35 years after a battlefield injury, and create a robotic army equipped with her combat skills and tactical brilliance. Interestingly, the scientist in charge of the operation is Jung-e’s stoic daughter, Seo-hyun (the late, great Kang Soo-yeon in her final role).
In the lab, she tests the humanoid robots in endless simulated battles, watching the likeness of her mother be shot at, dismembered and treated like a disposable product. As detached as Seo-hyun may seem, the intensely personal nature of the project takes a toll, repeatedly triggering the pain and grief she represses. After a shocking twist, Seo-hyun frees one of the robots, rebelling against Kronoid’s shady plans.
While JUNG_E presents plenty of detailed exposition and backstory to humanity’s war-torn, extraterrestrial society, the plot itself is extremely streamlined, contained almost entirely within the A.I. research lab, and focused on a heartrending mother-daughter relationship. The confined setting (reminiscent of Alien) enables the turns, reveals and character development to feel much more intimate, allowing the tension to build like a pressure cooker.
Likewise, the interactions between Seo-hyun and Jung-e’s android clone are the film’s powerful beating heart, playing out like a high-tech, high-stakes chamber drama. While the movie could be rightfully criticised for its surface-level exploration of the socio-political issues surrounding its civil war, or for its brief lip-service to the ethical and philosophical dilemmas surrounding artificial intelligence, it’s clear that JUNG_E is more interested in the emotional than the cerebral. The movie’s slowly unraveling character study of a daughter processing and finally letting go of her survivor’s guilt is beautifully executed and incredibly poignant.
Visually, this big-budget South Korean sci-fi epic could mostly go toe-to-toe with its Hollywood counterparts, thanks to its cohesive combination of CGI and practical effects. Despite a few clunky shots that look straight out of cutscenes from old Playstation 3 games and some illogical choreography, the majority of JUNG_E’s VFX designs and action sequences are smooth and stunning.
The movie does borrow more than a few elements from franchises and films like Universal Soldier, Robocop, Ex Machina, Blade Runner and Westworld without adding anything new to the A.I. debate. But writer-director Yeon more than makes up for it with the heartbreaking and cathartic human story at the center of his futuristic spectacle. Anchored by phenomenal performances from Kim and Kang, JUNG_E’s potent dramatic beats inject much humanity into a well-worn and predictable premise.
- Director: Yeon Sang-ho
- Starring: Kang Soo-yeon, Kim Hyun-joo, Ryu Kyung-soo
- Release date: January 20 (Netflix)