Review by Sean Boelman
South Korea has provided some of the best in genre cinema in recent years, and so it’s understandable why Seobok was one of the most buzzed-about titles playing at this year’s Fantasia. Enjoyable and thoughtful, even if it is a bit generic, Lee Yong-ju’s film will satisfy viewers looking for thrills that will also challenge them intellectually.
The movie follows a retired and terminally ill intelligence agent who is given the task of transporting and protecting the first-ever human clone who has unexpected and extraordinary gifts. It’s a pretty standard government conspiracy sci-fi movie on its surface, but it is the character-driven portion of the film that works better.
Admittedly, after the initial intrigue wears off and the movie starts to recycle plot points that we have seen done over and over again in the genre, it starts to feel like it is dragging. However, an action sequence or powerful emotional beat will come along to draw the viewer back into the film, powering it towards a surprisingly fulfilling finale.
The things that the movie has to say about mortality aren’t necessarily anything new, but the nuance and empathy with which Lee’s script explores these ideas is refreshing. It takes care not to beat the viewer over their head with its moral superiority, although its strongly anti-capitalist stance isn’t particularly subtle.
The protagonist’s arc as a terminally-ill, morally-conflicted man struggling to choose between self-interest, duty to his country, and the greater good is very straightforward and by-the-book. That said, the script makes up for that by building an interesting and unique dynamic between the protagonist and his genetically-engineered companion, giving the film a much stronger emotional core.
Gong Yoo, of Train to Busan fame, gives a performance that is absolutely phenomenal and packed with emotion. His chemistry with Park Bo-Gum, who plays the younger character, is also great and adds another layer to the movie. The supporting cast isn’t very noteworthy, with performances that are predictably exaggerated.
From a technical standpoint, there are a lot of areas in which the film could be improved, but these clearly weren’t the focus. Many of the effects-driven sequences are less than impressive, but the action sequences largely feel like an afterthought compared to the more emotion-based moments.
Seobok may not be the most ambitious, but it does what it sets out to accomplish plenty well enough to be worth watching. Fans of Korean genre cinema will certainly want to check this one out.
Seobok is screening at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs August 5-25.