The Whistleblower (Je-bo-ja)
Korea (2014) Dir. Yim Soon-rye
There is an apparent long-standing joke about doctors and scientists believing they are playing God by dint of their work essentially deciding who lives and who dies. In South Korea in 2005, scientist Hwang Woo-suk found himself in such a position and went from hero to zero after his highly praised work with stem cell cloning was exposed as a lie.
Director Yim Soon-rye presents us with a fictional account of this seismic scandal which rocked Korea, pondering less on the ethical failures of the science world but of the rights of the press to expose it to the world.
Butting heads are esteemed scientist Dr. Lee Jang-hwan (Lee Geung-young) whose recent work and subsequent thesis into stem cell research and the ultimate cloning of them has made him a national hero in Korea.
Meanwhile a TV news producer for the show PD Chase, Yoon Min-cheol (Park Hae-il), receives an anonymous phone call accusing Korea’s top sterility clinic of using ovum acquired illegally, which also implicates Dr. Lee.
Yoon then receives a second call from Shim Min-ho (Yoo Yeon-seok), a former employee of Dr. Lee’s, claiming the thesis is fake, the results have been falsified and her plans on experimenting further on children. Can Yoon persuade his station and the public of the validity of this story?
The central theme of this film seems to be that the public will accept whatever they are told, regardless of facts, provided it is told to them in such a compelling way. As an atheist I could hold religion up as the perfect example of this but that is another rant for another time.
In this case however journalism has, over the past half century, been one of the most manipulated and often maligned branches of the media – with immense validity of course – and has often dug its own hole alongside the boy who cried wolf.
This film does a fine job in dramatising such manipulation and the resultant tussle between fact and fiction with the public exposing themselves as the mindless sheep that they are, believing both stories when it suits them. It is rare that a journalist is painted in such a positive light but since in this case Yoon is essentially the hero in putting the case against Dr. Lee, Yim Soon-rye has no option to make his struggle a moral one in the face of the political clout Dr. Lee possesses.
So, in the red corner we have the acclaimed and apparently unimpeachable Dr. Lee, whose scientific record speaks for itself as the “Pride Of Korea” has plenty of important and influential people on hand for support and validation. In the blue corner Yoon, who has his trusty assistant Kim Yi-seul (Song Ha-yoon) and stressed but committed team leader Lee Sung-ho (Park Won-sang) to back him up as he puts the pieces of the report together outing Dr. Lee’s mendacity.
During the course of this near two hour cat and mouse game, the advantage changes hands regularly but usually in Dr. Lee’s favour. Yoon may have all the ammunition he needs but verifying it (legally) and making it stick are two different things when you have friends in high places.
Dr. Lee is able to counter any accusation from Yoon with more cover ups, dinner bought silences and even good old fashioned threats towards employees former or present. Among them is Shim Min-Ho’s wife Mi-Hyeon (Ryu Hyun-kyung), whose daughter with Min-Ho, Su-Bin (Kim Soo-an) is being treated through Lee’s (apparent) kindness.
And low we have an interesting situation where a man working in the fast moving world of multi-media information sharing is sitting on a time bomb of a story which under circumstances would be shared and be viral in minutes, is in fact silenced by good old fashioned methods of political pressure and manipulation of said media.
Because of the faith the public has in Dr. Lee, he is able to put out carefully constructed propaganda to save face and turn the public against PD Chase, who in this instance are actually telling the truth.
While it is a story in which we the outcome is inevitable a good craftsman will still be able to make us stay the distance to see just how the perpetrator gets his or her comeuppance or how the antagonist snatches glory from the jaws of defeat.
Yim’s presentation style may be fairly conventional in terms of aesthetic and layout but he is adept at building up the tension and adding the layers to Yoon’s plight, snatching the rug from under out feet just as the apex of victory is a fingertip away.
Rather importantly Yim presents his characters as pure human, even the flawed ones, ensuring the necessary investment in the two sides is there in the audience. Dr. Lee may be out of his depth with his ambitions and self-assumed power but we do see a side to him which suggests he is someone who is simply just that – out of depth with his ambitions.
Yoon is a dogged defender of the truth but doesn’t relish bringing down Lee out of spite or kudos but in the national interest of the truth, a frequent discussion point of the film.
Park Hae-il’s unassuming everyman looks suits him in his portrayal as Yoon, able to show his frustrations, beliefs and earnestness as a TV producer with a strong moral compass. Veteran Lee Geung-young has played many villains in his time but Dr. Lee is his smoothest thus far, an avuncular and confident man we’d hand our newborn over to in a heartbeat yet who would eat their innards the moment your back is turned.
A very well made drama with some conventional leanings, The Whistleblower is another thoroughly engaging slice of glossy cinema we’ve come to expect from Korean cinema with the added edge of its true story origins. Certainly not a film one needs to keep quiet about!