Director: Lee Yong-ju
Notable Cast: Gong Yoo, Park Bo-gum, Jo Woo-jin, Park Byung-eun, Jang Young-nam, Kim Jae-keon
Also known as: Seo Bok
The amount of science fiction films that focus on the “what does it mean to be human?” question of the genre is absurd. I love science fiction, in all of its colors and styles, but there are only so many times one can ask that question of the audience before it becomes trite. Yes, we all get it. Robots and clones and humans and boy, oh, boy, are we all that different?
The science fiction films that set themselves apart from their peers in asking such questions are ones that effectively create characters and situations where an audience cares about what the answer means to them. It’s not just some philosophical pondering. It’s a grounded and connected theme to the world of the film. Seobok succeeds in doing just that. Despite its oddball subtitle that reeks of big box store buzz words, Project Clone, the film asks so many of the hum-drum questions in such an intriguing slightly off-kilter manner that it manages to pull off hitting the tropes without feeling hum-drum itself.
Seobok starts off firmly in the action sci-fi realm of the genre spectrum in getting its two lead characters, Gong Yoo and Park Bo Gum, together, but don’t be mistaken in its intentions. This film is more dramatic character study than anything else. It only uses its action sparingly to keep its audience hooked into the otherwise meticulously dramatic pacing. If anything, even of the use of its science-fiction elements, which has Park Bo Gum’s Seobok learning to use his “telekinetic abilities” while figuring out his place in the world, are more in line with servicing the themes and characters than necessarily shoveling entertainment at its audience.
This is where Seobok works though. It engages its two characters, one pushing toward the end of his life and one just at the beginning, to firmly connect on what the meaning of life and death is in a world so brazenly uncaring, selfish, and greedy. The style of how the script, which fantastically empowers both actors to embrace their own nuanced performances, manages to bring them together - not just into an off-beat road trip style narrative for most of its second act, but also in an emotional state, is where Seobok manages to make its bolder statements. By the end, the question has evolved into a darker and more devastating one. It’s not about who is more humane, but who is more of the monster and its reverberating answers feel distinctly prodding in a modern world.
It’s easy to see how more general audiences will react to its limited use of action and big, brash sci-fi elements. The ones promised in its trailer. They’re going to be a little peeved. In part because a) they are not nearly as prevalent as expected and b) when those set pieces do arrive, they are splashy and fun and worth the price of admission. So why not have more?
Whether it’s the cat-and-mouse espionage paranoia of its Bourne tinged chase sequence in the second act or its super-powered X-Men influenced moments of telekinetic spectacle throughout - which culminates in some highly brutal moments of shocking violence in the third act, Seobok does excel at its thrills when necessary. Even though I was not dismayed by its seemingly sparse action set pieces, it’s hard not to want more when they are so well done.
Director Lee Yong-ju manages to set up the core thematic of the film, where a rogue-ish ex-special ops intelligence agent, played with such a heartfulness and edgy energy by the consistently impressive Gong Yoo, must escort a very valuable clone named Seobok, and it highlights its strengths. Considering his incredibly varied filmography, where he’s directed horror and romance films, it’s impressive to see how he manages to navigate all of the ins and outs of its premise. No matter if it’s the dramatic character interplay, the comedic fish-out-of-water elements, or the brutal action, Lee Yong-ju flashes a lot of talent in one film.
Seobok’s strange genre mixture ought to throw most of its viewers off, but its focus on characters and their development around those baseline questions creates a dynamic worth investigating. Don’t go in expecting a big, bold Hollywood-style sci-fi action blockbuster and the journey with Seobok and his protector, Min Gi-heon, will certainly tug on some heartstrings while maintaining a strong line of entertainment.
Just like its titular character, don’t judge the film’s strength and capabilities by its surface level. It’s the elements that lie underneath that make Seobok such a powerful and evocative watch.