Seobok (2021) – K-Movie Review

 

Park Bo-Gum Shines as Human Clone Seobok

Seobok imagines a world where scientists discover the secret to everlasting life in a clone created via genetic modification. With marrow that can heal, it’s both a saviour and threat.

When enemies attack, a terminal former agent provides safety in exchange for a slot in the clinical trial. It’s all to play for as every character, clone included, grapples with the implications of what Seobok brings to humanity.

Starring well-loved celebrity actors Gong Yoo and Park Bo-Gum in their first piece together, this movie dives into how immortality can surface both hope and greed.

Considered ‘the specimen’ in the lab, Seobok is a human clone. With accelerated cell division, his body is 20 years old but he’s only been ‘alive’ for ten and artless in the ways of the world.

There’s something compelling about a weaponized kid – with upgraded cells, he’s got defences but is operating on another level psychologically. Quite different in pulse from this years’ Song Joong-Ki starrer, Space Sweepers, it similarly explores desperation and survival instinct versus a package of undeniably dangerous innocence.

Perfectly placed to obey orders, ex-secret agent Min Ki-Hun is keen to safeguard Seobok. Featuring Gong Yoo as the operative with six months to live, you’ll recognise him from multiple movies and dramas. These include fan favourites Coffee Prince (Viki), Guardian: The Lonely and Great God (Viki) and Train to Busan (Amazon, Viki, Apple TV+), to Silenced, The Suspect (Viki) and The Age of Shadows (Amazon UK).

He’s paired with the perpetually likeable Park Bo-Gum, known as Korea’s younger brother. You can catch him in multiple dramas from Reply 1988 (Netflix), Hello Monster (Viki), and Encounter (Viki), to the recent Record of Youth (Netflix). He also appears in movies such as Coin Locker Girl (Apple TV+) and The Admiral: Roaring Currents (Amazon, Apple TV+) but this is his first major movie lead role.

“Seobok couldn’t have been played by anyone other than Park Bo-Gum”

Also on board as the Director of the Institute (and Seobok’s ‘mother’) is Jang Young-Nam. You may remember her as the dependable head nurse with a secret in It’s Okay to Not be Okay (Netflix) as well as Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo (Amazon, Viki) and Lovely Horribly (Viki).

Originally scheduled to open in 2020, this is the first Korean big-budget film (16.5 billion Won/14.7M USD/10.6M GBP) released simultaneously in cinemas and on over-the-top services. It’s a sign of the times and the year we’ve had, but perhaps also a shift in corporate strategy in line with viewer demand.

On the first film directed by writer/director Lee Yong-Ju since his 2012 award-winning romance, Architecture 101 (Amazon), he remarks that Seobok isn’t sci-fi but rather an allegory of faith and death. The story concept had been evolving since directing his script for occult horror thriller Possessed (Amazon) in 2009.

In a bulletin from the Korean Film Council, Lee confirms Gong and Park are the perfect faces for his characters. Gong was able to deeply express his humanity and Park… ‘Seobok couldn’t have been played by anyone other than Park Bo-Gum,’ says Lee.

Completely. What stays with you is Park’s angelic little face paired with his ability to crush metal with a glance. He’s mesmeric, instantly shifting from childlike curiousness to decisive weapon. As ever, Park as the title character does it all with a look, much like his charismatic character Prince Lee Yeong directing a country with his eyes in Moonlight Drawn by Clouds (Amazon, Viki).

Gong takes up the role of straight man to Park’s mix of naiveté and intensity. He’s typically the lead in productions from Coffee Prince to Train to Busan where you know exactly where to look. But here he’s the calm face of the nation’s conscience, notably acting as foil and setting Park up to shine.

The CGI throughout is sharp and imaginative. It’s the outward expression of Seobok’s emotions, whether he’s angrily defending himself or playfully experiencing life outside the lab. The action is natural, even in its fantastical digitised explosiveness.

Sets, particularly the laboratory, serve to separate Seobok’s experience of a pure, cultivated world versus the one waiting outside. From the nature-filled test centre to banks of technology, the ‘ark,’ seems to tell a different kind of survival story.

Interestingly the voice of reason and moral compass comes from the US. As much as this story is about the definition of human, it also raises a pointer toward simply following orders, rather than acknowledging there’s a choice – and responsibility – in every action. The reference to the operative agency as ‘the company’ completely nails that differentiating line.

While there are several appealing aspects to Seobok, the central driver of needing to move the specimen to protect him doesn’t really click. Surely the purpose of being seaworthy (other than cleverly representing THE modern ark) is the ability to escape. It could have been easier than sending a precious one-of-a-kind experiment off with a lone near-death ex-operative.

Plot hole aside, the bigger transgression is the dearth of character development and lack of emotional build. Without that relationship progression, the characters make a leap but we don’t get to see it, so it feels like something’s missing. It’s a shame as that journey could have nicely paired with the road trip, bringing home the feels.

We learn some things about Seobok, enough to understand his choices. For Ki-Hun, we get almost nothing. His desperate health situation seen as punishment for betraying a colleague is all we get for motivation. That missed opportunity to build tension and connection could have been the magic to make a more powerful conclusion.

Seobok raises some interesting questions showing the best and worst of humanity in times of change. The narrative is fairly predictable and character shift could have been more immersing. But there’s a lot to consider in a film mirroring a world that’s aggressively researching medical solutions all the time.

A little desk research tells us that a lab in Korea was exploring human cloning a few years back. Does the science fall in lines with our beliefs and morals? It’s certainly worth consideration. Whatever your stance, you can get a look at Director Lee’s projections in Seobok. Additionally, if you’re a fan of Park Bo-Gum, this is absolutely a vehicle to see him at his captivating best.

 

*Seobok was released on April 15, 2021 to cinemas in Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and over streaming platform TVING.


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