Yeon Sang-ho has become a genre filmmaker well worth watching, most famously through his 2016 global hit Train to Busan but also its live-action sequel Peninsula (2020) and animated prequel Seoul Station (2016), cult work The King of Pigs (2011), and 2020 Netflix series Hellbound. Netflix is also the home of his latest work, the science fiction film JUNG_E.

In the 22nd century runaway climate change has flooded the Earth through rising oceans. Most of the human population now lives in orbiting space stations, which have descended into 40 years of civil war. In one of the rival factions, Dr Yun Seo-hyun (Kang Soo-yeon) leads an attempt to replicate the brain of their greatest soldier in AI-driven soldier robots. That soldier, a war hero (Kim Hyun-joo) badly wounded and left in a coma decades ago, is also Dr Yun’s mother Jung-yi.

Viewers hoping for an action-packed science fiction thriller may come away from JUNG_E a little disappointed. While there is some CGI-heavy robot-on-robot action, it is largely constrained to the beginning and the end of the film. In between is a surprisingly thoughtful morality play about artificial intelligence, what it means to be human, and the rights of the individual – particularly after death. Sometimes these debates seem a little simplistic, and sometimes issues are touched on but not resolved, but altogether it is a smarter science fiction film that one might expect – particularly coming after other recent Korean forays into the genre like Space Sweepers. That is addresses some subjects with glances and pauses rather than moralising dialogue is to be commended.

The central issue is extraordinary bleak to think about, as Seo-hyun runs simulation after simulation with replicas of her own mother – absent since childhood. Each simulation ends with violent death to the simulacrum. Each debrief sees Seo-hyun interrogating a replica of Jung-yi that panics and feels pain. This is dark stuff.

JUNG_E is a film that unashamedly wears its influences on its sleeve, whether the aesthetics of James Cameron (it’s very blue), or the themes, story elements, and style of Blade RunnerGhost in the Shell, AI, or Alita: Battle Angel. There is a heavy reliance in Yeon’s film on computer-generated sets and backdrops, which gives it a very artificial feel. It can be a little distracting at first, but in the long run it allows Yeon to tell a story in a manner that would have been unaffordable with physical sets and effects.

Kang Soo-yeon’s central performance as Seo-hyun is excellent, delivering ambiguity, personal change, and quiet, controlled emotions. Sadly it was the final performance for Kang, who unexpectedly passed away before the film could be finished; the final work is dedicated to her memory. Kim Hyun-joo is a much more dynamic and active performer, which is appropriate given the level of stress, torture, and panic her character undergoes. She gives a human face and personality that transforms an ethical debate into a keenly-felt moral crisis.

If Kim Hyun-joo seems active then Ryu Kyung-soo is positively histrionic as Kim, the director of the facility where the AI experiments are taking place. Over-the-top, vain, and constantly seeking attention with inappropriate jokes and flamboyant gestures, at first he seems almost entirely inappropriate for the film around him. It is worth treating him with patience: the reasons behind his behaviour, and a more sensitive treatment of his character, come later in the work than one might expect.

JUNG_E is imperfect: its influences do make it feel rather derivative, and it does not quite deliver the level of drama and energy viewers may expect or want. At the same time it is a well-performed, attractive, and intelligent science fiction drama, and for serious SF enthusiasts those are often thin on the ground. It is worth cherishing them, flaws included, when they arrive.

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