Words by Siddhant Adlakha
South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho has a knack for approaching popular genres in ways most Hollywood films do not. His 2016 zombie movie Train to Busan was a prescient, hi-octane thriller about the intersection of disaster and class. His 2018 superhero saga Psychokinesis also explored social strata while training its lens on fascism and the police state, ideas baked into Marvel and DC heroes, but mostly ignored by modern blockbuster incarnations. Yeon’s latest, the dystopian war movie JUNG_E, scrutinizes a well-worn sci-fi premise with a thoughtful eye: the idea of replicating human consciousness within artificial bodies. The film is far from perfect—it can be narratively inelegant at times, and it often lacks a propulsive plot—but with a spectacularly moving performance at its center, from the late actress Kang Soo-yeon, it unravels unique dimensions of human thought and emotion in an increasingly digital and increasingly commodified world.
American shows and movies have tread this ground before—transferring and copying human consciousness is a common anxiety in the information age, from the recent Westworld series, to the films like CHAPPiE—but few have done so with Yeon’s unflinching focus on class and parent-child relationships (themes which he also explored in Train to Busan and Psychokinesis and which carry over here as well). Set in the 22nd century, its premise involves the wealthy having established human colonies in space, but its setting is the ravaged Earth they left behind. When a conflict breaks out amongst these colonies, the lower-class denizens on the ground are left to fuel the ongoing civil war, both by building weapons and by fighting on the front lines. One such warrior, who comes to be globally recognized for her skills on the battlefield, is Captain Yun Jung-yi (Kim Hyun-joo), who we see fearlessly gunning down militarized robots in the opening scene, only to swiftly have the rug pulled out from under us, when she’s momentarily distracted and shot dead.
It turns out these events happened decades ago, and what we’re now witnessing is a closed simulation, in which an android body imbued with the captain’s consciousness is made to enact the same perilous mission in Sisyphean fashion, dying over and over again, so that the lab coats outside the scene’s glass walls can analyze the reasons for her failure. This is the “JUNG_E” project, run by an Earth-based industry known as Kronoid, and it’s the 17th time they’ve run this simulation. The project’s goal is to identify the human weaknesses that led to Jung-yi’s failure, and to subsequently eliminate them, so they can produce and sell an entire legion of undefeatable A.I. soldiers in Jung-yi’s image. Complicating matters, however, is that one of the project’s leaders happens to be Jung-yi’s own daughter, Yoon Seo-hyun (Kang), who’s now middle-aged, but was only a child when her mother died in battle.
The trailer is rife with fluid action scenes, but few of these unfold outside the confines of Kronoid’s experiments. JUNG_E, it turns out, is a much more contained movie than meets the eye. It’s primarily concerned with the project’s impact on Seo-hyun, and how seeing a realistic version of her mother die and be tortured ad nauseam slowly chips away at her. But it’s also about her relationship to the past, and the guilt she feels over her mother’s death. For reasons the movie slowly reveals, it turns out Jung-yi’s motivation for enlisting were far more economic than altruistic, and its ripple effects continue to impact Seo-hyun today, as she’s faced with questions of not only who owns the intellectual property that is her mother’s mind and body—not to mention, how they came to own it—but who might one day possess the rights to her own consciousness as well.
The film hints constantly at the darker side of this sort of commodification and hero worship...and the way it strips away the individual underneath, reducing them to their physical form.
The modern world is rife with posters and action figures bearing Jung-yi’s likeness, but the film hints constantly at the darker side of this sort of commodification and hero worship—the kind bestowed on action stars and their characters today—and the way it strips away the individual underneath, reducing them to their physical form. After all, the Kronoid experiments seek to do the same by robbing Jung-yi of her humanity in order to create the perfect soldier. Through some uncomfortable revelations, Yeon even exposes the inherently lurid and sexual nature of this idolatry, the kind that Hollywood’s increasingly de-sexualized mainstream output seems reluctant to depict, let alone confront.
As a war brews far in the background (one we rarely see, except for a handful of snippets), the movie’s focus remains on the ongoing experiment, and the related board meetings and military approval processes. These lead to the increasing frustrations of Seo-hyun’s boss, the animated, wise-cracking, and emotionally unpredictable Sang-hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo). For better or worse, Sang-hoon’s initial purpose is to recap the premise a handful of times—a repetition which the movie even lampshades—and while this exposition becomes quickly overbearing, it does eventually tie in to what we learn about Sang-hoon’s character, from the determination with which he navigates the project, to his sycophantic desire to impress the company’s chairman, a dark inversion of Seo-hyun’s own connection to the project. Sang-hoon approaches the JUNG_E experiments from an emotional remove; his goal is professional glory and financial success. On the other hand, Seo-hyun’s objectives are primarily emotional, though they aren’t initially clear, so they form an intriguing mystery. After all, why would someone subject themselves to the agony of witnessing their mother’s death, over and over again?
The answer may not be very complicated on the surface—it’s eventually revealed in flashback, as an extension of Seo-hyun’s aforementioned guilt—but it’s made constantly alluring by Kang’s blistering final performance. The actress, a shining star of Korean cinema, returned to the screen after nine years to play Seo-hyun, but died suddenly last May after the project was complete. The role is now, quite fittingly, a digital epitaph given the movie’s Netflix release. It not only allows Kang to wrestle in silence with a concealed grief, which occasionally froths over into angst, but also affords her character an unspoken confrontation of death, as Seo-hyun faces down her mother’s final moments in ways that force her to reflect on her own mortality, isolating her in the process.
JUNG_E works best when it centers these quiet dilemmas, and when it allows Kang’s riveting close-ups to perform most of the emotional legwork. In the process, its apparent “plotless-ness” works to its advantage.
JUNG_E works best when it centers these quiet dilemmas, and when it allows Kang’s riveting close-ups to perform most of the emotional legwork. In the process, its apparent “plotless-ness” works to its advantage, since the film is at its most effective simply when Seo-hyun walks in and out of her laboratory, and repeatedly confronts some version of the past. When the film eventually breaks out into climactic set pieces, its seams begin to show—the lack of a VFX budget hurts most here, since the action lacks physical weight—but it often returns to its optimum mode of intimate, interpersonal drama set in highly unusual sci-fi circumstances. The conclusions it comes to, about how Seo-hyun might eventually find closure, are deeply melancholic, but they speak to the ways in which the world of industry and ruthless capitalism has robbed these characters of any possibility of a traditional happy ending.
The film may meander at times, but in true Yeon fashion, it finds unexpected layers to ideas, stories and genre tropes about self-actualization which viewers of popular cinema might take for granted, given the way Hollywood studio science fiction so often turns its backs on discomforting complications. In JUNG_E, these complications form the narrative and emotional bedrock, in a tale of how grief becomes overpowering in a world filled with constant digital reminders of life, death and pain, and a tale which explores the thin line between personhood and its uncanny reflections.
Published on January 21, 2023