Without death, would life still have meaning? Lee Yong-ju’s high concept sci-fi thriller Seobok (서복) situates itself in a near future Korea in which the possibility of immortality is tantalisingly close only there are some who would prefer it not to be, fearing that without the driving force of mortal dread humanity will lose its ambition and thereafter slide into internecine greed. Then again, humanity hasn’t needed much of an excuse before.
When a foreign scientist is murdered by drone the incident is attributed to “terrorists” presumably objecting to his research into stem cell technology and the possibilities of eternal healing. Fearing exposure, NIS agent Ahn (Jo Woo-jin) advises the project move to a secret location and recruits a former associate, Min Ki-hun (Gong Yoo), to act both as a test subject and a bodyguard. Since leaving the service, Ki-hun has been suffering with a terminal brain tumour that leaves him plagued by debilitating headaches and distressing hallucinations.
Ki-hun is roped in by the promise of a potential cure for his condition brokered by Seobok (Park Bo-gum), a genetically modified clone who cannot die. Speaking to the dubious ethics of the research project, no one quite thinks of Seobok as “human” though he was born in the same way as any other child. “It’s like collecting insulin from a pig” a doctor later scoffs at Ki-hun’s squeamishness witnessing Seobok hooked up to a chair and milked for his lifesaving properties, realising that this may be his life “forever”. Having lived all his life within the lab, Seobok is filled with wonder for the outside world begging Ki-hun to walk a little slower through a market when the pair are forced on the run together so he can take it all in a little better. He has no clothes of his own, cannot use chopsticks, and is left with nothing to do with his time other than think. The scientists refer to him only as a “specimen” refusing to acknowledge his humanity viewing him solely as a test subject.
Seobok can’t decide if life in the presence of death is worse than the curse of immortality. Already condemned, Ki-hun no longer knows if he wants to live or is merely afraid of dying. The fear of death is itself a kind of weapon, at least according to those against the project, a force which propels mankind forward in imposing an unavoidable deadline as it struggles against its mortality. Ki-hun, meanwhile, regards his tumour as a punishment, a mark of his moral cowardice in failing to stand up to his boss’ duplicitous practices and blaming himself for the death a friend who was silenced for daring to speak to out. In bonding with Seobok he realises he cannot allow the same thing to happen again in choosing to prioritise his own survival over someone else’s life. Seobok, meanwhile, comes to the opposite conclusion in realising that his existence is potentially apocalyptic and that there is no escape for him because he has nowhere else to go other than back to his “home” at the lab despite coming to an understanding that much of his treatment there constitutes abuse.
Nevertheless, Seobok is fiercely contested by mysterious foreign forces intent either on capturing or destroying him apparently terrified of the implications of a world in which sickness can be instantly cured and death has become a thing of the past. Such a world would, of course, be very bad news for Big Pharma and the medical industry, yet it’s the philosophical arguments which they claim motivate them in a fear of a permanent and destructive anarchy which is more than a little ironic considering what eventually unfolds in their quest to capture Seobok who, as it turns out, has also developed awesome powers of telekinesis. Rather than eternal life, however, it’s death that the two must learn to accept, Ki-hun reckoning with his trauma while coming to terms with his terminal diagnosis, and Seobok by contrast seizing his humanity by rejecting his immortality.
Essentially a lowkey existential drama, Lee Yong-ju’s high concept sci-fi thriller boasts excellent production design and large scale action set pieces, yet situates itself in a cold world of paranoia and anxiety in which even mortal dread has been effectively weaponised by duplicitous forces intent on playing god in the permanent power vacuum of the modern society.
Seobok streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)