Seobok (서복, Lee Yong-ju, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

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)

Tune in for Love (유열의 음악앨범, Jung Ji-woo, 2019)

Tune in for love poster 2The course of true love never did run smooth. Another in the recent series of nostalgic ‘90s romances, Tune in for Love (유열의 음악앨범, Yooyeolui Eumakaelbum) takes a pair of nervous youngsters and charts the course of their love story over a decade which, though not quite turbulent, saw its share of difficulties and a host of technological changes. “Miracles are nothing special” the heroine tells us, but when it comes to love miracles are all there is and in the end you’ll just have to learn to trust them.

On Oct. 1, 1994 Hyeon-u (Jung Hae-in) walks into Mi-su’s (Kim Go-eun) bakery looking for something with tofu in it. While inside, he hears the first broadcast of Yoo Yeol’s Music Album, a new morning program which seems to signal the beginning of a new era. Though Mi-su is quick to realise that the only reason someone would be desperately looking for plain tofu early in the morning is because they’ve just been released from prison, she decides to offer him a part-time job in the bakery where he becomes a member of the family alongside her “aunt” Eun-ja (Kim Guk-Hee) who’s taken care of her since her mother died. His past, however, refuses to let him go however much he tries to move away from it. Tracked down by his delinquent friends, Hyeon-u is unable to return to the bakery and will spend the next decade trying to do just that.

Fate parts the youngsters repeatedly, but always brings them back together again seemingly by chance. Military service, changes of address, miscommunication and changing technology all conspire to keep them apart but like any good rom-com the problems aren’t so much circumstantial as personal. A deeply wounded young man, Hyeon-u is taken with the familial atmosphere at the bakery because he feels a sense of acceptance he hasn’t anywhere else, but deep down he still doubts he deserves the “normal life” he so deeply craves. His friends doubt it too, always turning up unexpectedly to remind him of their shared trauma and the debt of guilt he can’t repay. His insecurity prevents him from sharing the source of his pain with Mi-su, keeping her somehow outside the bubble of his shame as the only one capable of knowing the “real” him. She meanwhile is frustrated in realising that he’s holding something back, hurt he doesn’t trust her enough to let him in, and worrying he’ll never truly be ready for full commitment. 

Nevertheless, though often apart they remain painfully in sync, until that is fate brings them back together. As young man with a checkered past and no safety net, Hyeon-u has to fight twice as hard to get ahead, eventually graduating high school and getting into college while supporting himself with part-time jobs. Mi-su, meanwhile, is burdened by the knowledge that she’s lost her mother’s bakery and is desperate to get it back. Dreaming of being a writer, she turns down an internship at the all important radio show to go for a steady job she’s told is at a publisher’s but is actually somewhere more like a print shop where she’s stuck doing incredibly boring admin work. Hyeon-u is unable to get back in touch with her after miraculously reappearing because he’s ashamed to admit that he ended up getting in trouble again thanks to his awful friends even though it really wasn’t his fault. She meanwhile confesses that a part of her was relieved not to hear from him because she too is unhappy in herself, feeling lost and confused, disappointed not to be living the kind of life she could be proud of. 

Times change, but their one constant is the radio show broadcasting every morning and providing additional though indirect methods of communication when they are otherwise unable to make contact. Pay phones give way to email and then to mobiles all the way into the early days of the smartphone era, but face to face conversation remains the most difficult. Mi-su gives up on Hyeon-u while he, ironically, probably does sort something out by having a good old fashioned punch up with his generally unhelpful friend. She wonders if she’s better off to make the “smart” choice rather than waiting on love. Hyeon-u is hurt that in the end she didn’t trust him, but is eventually made realise that the problem was that he didn’t trust himself. Then again, you can’t fight the power of true connection or the pain of its absence, all you need to do is a little fine tuning to make sure the signal comes through loud and clear.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

The Witness (목격자, Cho Kyu-jang, 2018)

The Witness poster 2The murder of a young woman outside of her New York apartment block in 1964 became a psychology text book standard thanks to the fact no one had raised the alarm or come to help her. Later investigations more or less debunked the so called “bystander effect”, at least in this instance, but it remains broadly true that those who find themselves witnessing a distressing incident fully expect that “someone” will be dealing with it, conveniently forgetting that they too are “someone”. The hero of Cho Kyu-jang’s The Witness (목격자, Mokgyeokja) is only one of many to temporarily distance himself from his community when he fears he has locked eyes with a killer and inadvertently made his family a target for retribution.

Sang-hoon (Lee Sung-min), a middle-class lawyer, is riding high after buying a new apartment (with a hefty mortgage) for his wife and daughter. Rolling home drunk after an evening drinking with colleagues, he opens yet another beer and gazes out over the balcony of his new apartment musing on how great his life is only to be confronted with a screaming woman being chased by a violent man in the courtyard. She falls and the man strikes her. Sang-hoon struggles for his phone but drops it in drunken shock. His wife emerges from the bedroom and alerts the killer to their presence by turning the lights on. Sang-hoon snaps them off and goes back to the balcony where he is convinced the killer has seen him. Paranoid, he forgets all about the poor woman bleeding on the concrete below and spends the night in his hallway clutching a baseball bat just in case.

He doesn’t know it yet, but Sang-hoon has indeed made himself a target for a marauding “random” killer. Afraid and ashamed, he decides to keep quiet. It would be easy enough to read Sang-hoon’s unwillingness to get “involved” in other people’s business as a hangover from an upbringing in an authoritarian regime in which keeping your head down and your nose clean might be essential tools for survival, but it’s also fair to say that his attitude is defined as much by notions of middle-class respectability as it is by cowardice and selfishness. An old busybody in the apartment block is constantly banging on about the house prices, getting the residents to sign a legal waver promising not to cooperate with the police or the media to avoid the name of the community becoming linked with violent crime. Sang-hoon says he wants to protect not only his wife and daughter, but their home too. His hopes and dreams are bound up with conventional homeownership. This is the way he intended to fulfil his male obligations to protect his family, but now it’s being threatened in a way he never expected and he finds himself tested.

Despite himself, Sang-hoon does feel he ought to help those in need. He bristles when his wife wants him to help out a friend whose child was injured in a car accident that the police didn’t bother to investigate properly, because he knows it’s a lost cause and she’s better to settle. He feels sorry for her, but not enough to rock the boat. Being a lawyer he perhaps knows what a risk it can be when the wrong people know where you live, but he’s at constant battle with himself knowing that the killer is still out there and will likely kill again. If he’d only called an ambulance instead of cowering by the front door, the poor woman might have survived – her death is on his hands as much as the killer’s because he chose to do nothing. The body count will only rise all while Sang-hoon tries to hedge his bets, calculating whether he’s better off keeping quiet and hoping the killer appreciates his complicity or surrendering himself to the police in the hope that they can protect him by taking the killer out of the picture.

Sang-hoon’s desire not to get involved has left him very involved indeed. He hoped it would all go away if he turned a blind eye and kept himself out of it, but like it or not he is a member of a community and he has a responsibility which cannot be abnegated. It turns out the best way to protect your family is protecting other people’s, maintaining a herd immunity to the threat of violent crime. There is, however, a reason they tell you to shout “fire” and not “help” – people are selfish and if they hear fire they know they are in danger too so it’s in their interest to come running, if it’s only you in danger they may not put themselves out. Sang-hoon’s brush with the embodiment of random threat does at least release him from the ingrained isolationism of the aspirant middle-classes in which any kind of fellow feeling is distinctly frowned upon, allowing him free rein to embrace his natural tendency towards altruism safe in the knowledge that his desire to help is not a weakness but a strength that will keep his family safe through the interconnectedness of a compassionate community.


The Witness was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)