Korea (2021) Dir. Lee Yong-Joo

Eternal life. It seems many people yearn for it, not necessarily to avoid dying but rather to exploit it in the name of gaining power which can’t ever be wrest from them, or as we know them, criminals. This would make the idea of immortality flawed and we should be thankful it doesn’t exist. But what it if did?

An American researcher into stem cell technology is murdered by drone strike, reported to be by terrorists, prompting NIS Chief Ahn (Jo Woo-jin) to oversee the project’s move to a safer place. He recruits former agent Min Ki-hun (Gong Yoo), now suffering from chronic headaches due to a brain tumour, to serve as the bodyguard for a medical test subject, the world’s first genetically modified clone, Seobok (Park Bo-gum).

Fearing interest in Seobok comes from the fact he cannot die, naturally people will stop at nothing to get hold of his DNA. For his part, Ki-Hun has been promised a cure for his condition using the rejuvenating cells Seobok creates, though he will be a guinea pig for this treatment. When the relocation is interrupted by terrorists, Ki-Hun realises he can’t trust anyone when it comes to protecting Seobok and his unique genetics.

The meaning of life has been covered in many films, ranging from the existential to the comedic and naturally sci-fi, which is where this Korean entry fits in, although this might be a bit tenuous for hardcore lovers of the genre. However, Seobok does riff on familiar motifs and themes found in this particular milieu yet manages to keep a safe distance from being derivative.

Writer-director Lee Yong-Joo’s script is very loosely inspired by the legend of the ancient Chinese alchemist Xu Fu, sent by Emperor Qin Shi Huang to discover the Elixir of Life but never returned. The connection is in the Korean retelling of this story, Xu Fu was known as Seobok, which makes more sense knowing this but isn’t essential to enjoying the film if you don’t.

Questioning the meaning of life without death may not appear the first thought to enter the audience’s mind courtesy of the espionage-esque opening with the US scientist being blown to bits by a sinister looking drone in his resort hideout. Chief Ahn suspects news of the experiment with Seobok has been leaked, but refrains from informing his seniors and American counterparts about, since time is of the essence.

Ki-Hun’s involvement comes with a murky background that remains as such, implying he left the NIS on bad terms. A flashback late in the film adds a little more information but details are still sparse, but does cause us to wonder if Ahn chose Ki-Hun because he can trust him or, due to his debilitating condition and possible residual ill feeling, considers him expendable.

Just one of many threads the script doesn’t care to expand upon or tie up, partially as it has a deeper story to tell. But as it gets itself in a twist with the various parties vying for Seobok’s cells, it explores its existential and moral themes via the relationship between Ki-Hun and Seobok. At the lab, Seobok isn’t referred to by name, just “the specimen” since he isn’t human, yet his callow mind and lack of cynicism makes him more human than most.

Science being what it is, there is the obligatory side effect to Seobok’s artificial existence – he can control pressure around him, manipulating objects to move or be crushed under its weight. Seasoned sci-fi/superhero film viewers will immediately see how this plays out and I won’t disappoint you by denying it is crucial to the film’s climax, including the fate of one person which will have the most hardened viewer wince.

Morphing into a road trip of sorts, there are some light moments as Seobok enters the outside world for the first time and everything is a wonder to him. With his pallid yet shiny features and youthful looks, Seobok is as much an attraction as the things around him, meaning trouble soon follows. Then there is the stark contrast of him and Ki-Hun exchanging interesting philosophies based on their life experiences or in Seobok’s case, lack thereof.

It is quite fascinating to hear a character wonder if they deserve to live simply because they are programmed to, whilst also asking if someone else is deserving because they are afforded the opportunity. Interesting points are raised regarding the worth of living forever if you can’t feel the wonders to see or experiences to have, yet Seobok does feel, even crying at one point, as well as bleeding from lack of treatment.

Lee Yong-Joo proves adept at adapting his direction to suit mood and style, and with a film as protean as this, he may get the chance to flex his muscles in a number of genres – action thriller, sci-fi, human drama, et al. But all contained in the one film, he runs the risk of satiating parts of the audience for one section, whilst the others wait for their choice of thrill.  

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised as this was designed to be a blockbuster to pack them into the multiplexes and this is evident in some much of its structure and content, though not all of it, but COVID caused its release to be delayed twice. This also led to the film being streamed simultaneously which ate into its box offices takings but was still a big hit.

However, the film is very well put together, boasting strong special effects and glorious visuals courtesy of cinematographer Lee Mo-Gae, bringing life to the many settings and locations. The matinee idol duo of Gong Yoo and Park Bo-Gum provide the dramatic and emotional structure, complimenting each other as their odd-couple characters mesh.

Seobok works on an emotional and philosophical level hinting it might have prospered had it stayed that way, appeasing sci-fi fans more, but for what it is, this is a busy yet entertaining romp.