South Korea. 2021.
Director/Screenplay – Lee Jong-yu, Producers – Kim Hyeon-cheol & Lee Jong-yu, Photography – Lee Mo-gae, Music – Jo Young-wook. Production Company – CJ Entertainment/Studio 101/TPS Company.
Gong Yoo (Min Gi-heon), Park Bo-gum (Seo Bok), Jo Woo-jin (Chief Ahn), Park Byung-eun (Dr Shin Hak-seon), Jang Young-nam (Dr Im), Kim Jae-keon (Kim Cheon-oh)
After their top genetic scientist Carl Anderson is assassinated with a drone bomb, the Seoin Research Institute decide they need to protect their most prized asset. The former government operative Min Gi-heon is brought in by his old colleague, Seoin’s security adviser Ahn. Gi-heon is introduced to the asset – Seo Bok, a clone who is genetically engineered, making him effectively immortal. Gi-heon is lured on the promise that Seo Bok can cure him of the terminal brain cancer he suffers. He is asked to transport Seo Bok but an assassination attempt is made along the way. During this, Seo Bok demonstrates incredible psychic abilities to repel attackers. Seo Bok refuses to return to the laboratory and asks that Gi-heon accompany him on a journey to Ulsan. There Seo Bok experiences the outside world for the first time and begins to discover life as more than a laboratory specimen. However, Seobok’s incredible powers make him sought by Seoin’s CEO, double agents within the company and American government agencies, who are seeking either to exploit his unique genetics or to eliminate him as a threat.
Seobok was the third film for South Korean director Lee Jong-yu who had previously made the horror film Possessed (2009) and the romance Architecture 101 (2012).
In recent years, South Korean cinema has jumped on board an interest in psychic powers themes with films like Psychokinesis (2018) and The Witch Part I: Subversion (2018). There have been plentiful English-language treatments stretching back through The Power (1968), Carrie (1976), The Fury (1978), Scanners (1981), Firestarter (1984), Push (2009), Freaks (2018) and others. (For a more detailed list see Film About Psychic Powers).
Seobok draws on familiar tropes of many of these films – the psychic as a mutant (in this case genetically engineered); they are on the run from pursuing government agents and assorted parties seeking to exploit their abilities (in this case a fight between the corporate creators, along with the CIA who want to eliminate the threat posed by Seobok). Like several of these other work, the film also culminates with a conflagration caused by the psychic powers unleashed.
Lee Jong-yu pulls all of these aspects off with assurance and combines them with a road journey where the two characters – the innocent and unworldwise Seo Bok and the dying enforcer Gong Yoo – connect with one another. The film creates an interesting contrast between one character (Seo Bok) who is immortal and the other (Gi-heon) who has a terminal condition where it makes a number of points about the plain and simple enjoyment of life. I am not sure I agreed with the contrast the film wants to make here where it seems to assume that immortality equates with sterility and lack of purpose and having a finite lifespan with purpose and drive – I am sure there are people out there that would love multiple lifetimes to pursue research projects, to travel more, watch more movies, read/write more books.
The climactic scenes draw on films like Carrie, The Fury and in particular Akira (1988) with the psychic going amok and causing a vast swathe of destruction. Lee Jong-yu gets in some great scenes with Park Bo-gum bursting out of the complex, sweeping people aside with an indoor trellis, crushing the aging CEO in his wheelchair like a crumpled tin can, creating a forcewall against bullets fired, tearing open the side of the ship, creating waves and opening holes in the ground to wipe out battalions, even crushing tanks. The film arrives at the fairly bleak belief that such powers cannot be allowed and the only solution is for Gong Yoo to shoot Park Bo-gum.