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by Jay Seaver

"An ex-spy and fugitive clone who mean business."
3 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Lee Young-Ju's "Seobok" is a story that's been done a fair amount and is on the one hand a strikingly impressive case of the benefits of stripping things down and on the other a warning that when a filmmaker does that, there should still be something a little surprising up his sleeve. I love the bits where there's no messing around, and would love them more in a movie that isn't so resolutely working off a familiar template.

After an American researcher (Paul Battle) is assassinated by a drone strike, former intelligence agent Min Ki-Hun (Gong Yoo) is contacted by his old boss, Ahn Ik-Hyun (Jo Woo-Jin) for a seemingly simple job, escorting clone Seobok (Park Bo-Gum) from the Seoin Research Institute's off-shore laboratory to a secret bunker, lest the terrorists get him too. The scientists there (Park Byung-Eun & Jang Young-Nam) give him the creeps, and Seobok himself is unnerving - he looks about 20 but was gestated 10 years ago, and apparently has some sort of mental influence on things around him - but Ahn has offered a heck of an inducement: Treatment from Seobok's unaging stem cells to cure the glioblastoma that threatens to kill Min within months. The transport inevitably gets attacked, leaving Ki-Hun and Seobok on their own, not certain who to trust.

Seobok is more hostile than is typical for these movies, where the norm is more of a childlike curiosity than Park Bo-Gum's cynical teenager, and while that's an occasionally interesting choice, it doesn't exactly challenge Gong Yoo's cynical spy for much of the movie. They rankle each other, but they don't make good fits for each other's blind spots, mostly arguing over details and which practical concern should direct them. Gong gets to be exasperated and Park aloof, at least until their time on the run connects to their respective tragic backstories, and they do it well, but there's no contrast.

It makes the finale cynical in a way that doesn't excite - there's plenty of life and limb at stake, but everyone is so compromised or detached from humanity that it's just bodies being maimed, not a fight for any sort of principle. It makes much of the film kind of cold - with the opposing sides not really having an idea or value between them. There's some "immortality would be bad for humanity" justification that's not challenged (even though the most likely rebuttal might fit into the film's cynical world view), and while there's some more interesting elements to Ki-Hun's and Seobok's relationship if you dig a little - Ki-Hun clearly sees his cancer as a punishment for putting loyalty to the organization over a personal attachment while Seobok is perceptive enough to see that his "family" is a broken mess that's using him.

And yet, even when the violence of all this running into each other is a bit hollow, it is also damn impressive to watch. Early on, when it's mostly conventional hand/gun/truck stuff, there's a gruff ruthlessness to how Ki-Hun and his adversaries push through each other, like they know what's effective are showing that they know, so that their opponents have the option of stepping back before they get messed up. Later on, when Seobok's powers become more of a factor, there's a similar lack of extraneous nonsense: If he's going to crush something with his mind, there's no visual ripple of force pushing across the screen, that thing just implodes, and it by and large looks practical rather than like some CGI replacement.

It's kind of a mean-spirited reason to like a movie, but for all that there's a theme of "people missing part of their humanity becoming a bit of a found family" to "Seobok", it's nevertheless a rather mean-spirited movie. It works as one, sure, and there's probably an audience that would rather a film with its plot focus on the grim realities involved rather than the idealistic take, but there's also a hollowness about that which makes one realize why so many filmmakers put the heartwarming angle closer to the surface.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34701&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/07/21 14:32:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Yong-ju Lee

Written by
  Gyu-hun Yeom
  Jae-min Lee
  Min-suk Jeo
  Yong-ju Lee

  Yoo Gong
  Bo-gum Park
  Woo-jin Jo
  Byung-eun Park
  Young-nam Jang

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