Train to Busan‘s Yeon Sang-ho crafts a moving nearish-future dystopian actioner anchored by an excellent final performance from late actor Kang Soo-yeon.
What would you do to know your parents? Not just as parents, but as people—even long after their deaths? How would you make the most of a horrendous moral quagmire you had no choice in getting dragged into—and what would you do when that quagmire, for all its familiarity, finally became too much to bear? On a broader level, what makes us human—and what remains when we’re gone? Director/writer Yeon Sang-ho asks and answers these questions in his out-now-on-Netflix science fiction film JUNG_E. It’s a solid, thoughtful film that shines thanks to its leading trio and Sang-ho’s skill at depicting and delving into the uncanny.
Decades ago, Yun Jung-yi (Kim Hyun-joo) was a battlefield legend—a mercenary who singlehandedly shaped the turn of a massive war between humanity’s ruling powers and a successionist cluster of space colonies. On what would have been her final mission, Jung-yi was mortally injured. Her employer, the mighty Kronoid corporation, obtained permission from her family to copy (and copyright) her brain patterns in exchange for preserving her in a comatose state and paying for her daughter Yun Seo-hyun’s education.
As an adult, Seo-hyun (the late Kang Soo-yeon in her final performance) works as the project chief for Kronoid’s JUNG_E project—using Jung-yi’s brainwaves to create an android duplicate (the titular character) whose deployment on a battlefield would theoretically mark the resurrection (and mass production) of the legendary warrior.
JUNG_E would be the crowning achievement of Kronoid’s decades-long work with Jung-yi-the-brand (Other ventures include action figures [both realistic and cartoonified] and an entire line of collectible merch that makes money, even if it isn’t quite weapons manufacturing money.). Or she would if she could ever clear the simulation of Jung-yi’s last mission—rather than being mortally wounded in the exact same way the legendary warrior herself was on every single test run.
With the higher-ups’ patience running thin, the project’s slimeball-who-desperately-wants-to-be-cool supervisor Kim Sang-Hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo) is getting a dangerous flavor of desperate. Seo-hyun must face the unceremonious end of her life, the equally unceremonious end of her life’s work, and the fact that said work revolves around a corporate-owned simulacrum of her mother. And all the while, JUNG_E runs Jung-yi’s last mission again and again—unaware of who and what she is beyond the narrow confines of a doomed firefight.
Sang-ho is a skilled visual stylist, and he renders Jung_E‘s future and its action skillfully. While a comparatively limited special effects budget means that a great deal of the film’s world looks artificial, that works for an aggressively corporatized future, where warm colors are luxuries for the powerful—and as the powerful are corporate, their luxury is merely a different flavor of sour compared to the utilitarian look of the rest of the lab.
Likewise, though JUNG_E‘s action suffers from digital weightlessness—particularly during the effects-heavy climax—it is consistently well-choreographed and character-building. Robot cops (not to be confused with good old Alex Murphy) move with rote precision. Prototype combat androids constantly use their mass as a weapon, opting for drops and crushes that take full advantage of their being heavy war machines. JUNG_E, by contrast, is far more creative and fluid—she uses anything and everything she can to seize an advantage, and she’s almost always in motion. It’s compelling work.
JUNG_E‘s greatest strength lies in its three leads’ performances. Kim builds JUNG_E, the combat android, from Jung-yi, the person–the former’s a replica whose limited world initially bars her from the dimensionality and self-awareness her original self possessed. The confusion, terror, and later curiosity Kim brings to JUNG_E’s rare moments outside of battle make for compelling birth-of-a-soul work.
Ryu’s Kim Sang-Hoon starts as a broadly irritating middle manager whose obnoxious behavior would make him a nightmare to work for even if he wasn’t a gleefully cruel apparatchik for a weapons developer. As the limits of Sang-Hoon’s world become clear, his performance takes on a wonderfully uncanny note. He’s trying too hard to be a fun boss despite his sadism because “fun” and cruelty are his only tools with which to relate to the world. He’s a great villain, and Ryu plays him wonderfully—whether quietly snarling or laughing at his own dreadful joke.
It’s Kang, though, who makes the strongest impression. Yun Seo-hyun has devoted her entire adult life to her work and to making the best she can of a life that’s been inexorably tied to an amoral corporate behemoth. JUNG_E‘s events force her out of her comfort zone, and in turn lead her to ask critical questions. The answers she finds shape not only her actions but her body language and the way she reacts to her peers. A coworker signing up to test a particularly warped extension of Jung-yi/JUNG_E, the corporate product, draws sharp and raw anger compared to the resigned disgust with which Seo-hyn treats Sang-Hoon.
Conversely, a late film revelation that offers Seo-hyun an answer she’s sought for decades provides her with a badly needed opportunity to let out everything that she’s kept bottled up. It’s thoughtful, precise work on Kang’s part—one heck of a final bow.
JUNG_E‘s a good piece of science fiction and a great actor’s showcase. Sad as I am to have only been introduced to Kang Soo-yeon posthumously, she is excellent here—and Ryu Kyung-soo and Kim Hyun-joo do similarly strong work with Sang-ho’s cerebral, compelling script. Acknowledging that the seams of its budget are visible (and hurt the impact of the action despite it being choreographed well), it’s quite well made. All told? Well worth a watch.
JUNG_E is now streaming on Netflix.