Words by Stephen Kasiewicz
Ambitious, futuristic tale about the cloned brain of a famed soldier and her daughter in a desolate earth divided by militant factions
In what is perhaps the most accomplished of the recent trend of large-scale, big budget South Korean sci-fi films, director Yeon Sang-ho delivers a stimulating, dystopian epic.
Space Sweepers (2021) and Alienoid (2022) entered relatively uncharted genre territory with mixed results.
Yet Yeon largely manages to convince in a grandiose nightmare which includes several satirical jabs at the commercial excesses of an idol obsessed culture.
An overly convoluted opening details an environmentally ravaged world mostly vacated by humans in the 22nd century. Water levels rise to leave earth resembling a gigantic swimming pool while those that remain queue grimly for gruel.
People flee to safe space havens but a war erupts between violent splinter groups and unified forces without a resolution for decades.
The development of an army of AI fighters using the brain information of former allied mercenary soldier Yun Jung-yi (Kim Hyun-joo) could be the key to ending the conflict.
A flashback shows that former Captain Yun became a gun for hire to pay for her young daughter’s costly medical treatment.
However she fell into a coma after a doomed final mission without knowing if her only child survived surgery to remove a lung tumour. An adult Seo-hyun (Kang Soo-yeon) oversees the laboratory that uses her mother’s cloned brain to develop the ultimate robot soldier.
Standing in her way is erratic lab director Kim Sang-hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo) who has a penchant for bad jokes and pushing the test simulations too far.
Despite an overload of exposition involving indestructible dog-like robots in multiverse mock-up combat situations, a familial theme emerges.
On a technologically advanced planet wrecked by hostilities, personal relationships still matter.
Everything revolves around a grieving daughter and a mother who sacrificed everything to ensure her survival. There’s a lot to take in as 'Train to Busan' director Yeon stylishly splices together gushing sentiment and graphic violence in adjacent scenes, building towards a well-choreographed, if somewhat formulaic final showdown.
It does not detract from a lavish production, funded and released by streaming giant Netflix, full of aesthetically jarring images and thought provoking concepts.
Questions are continually raised about the morality of using the most complex part of the human body as a mere commodity which can be bought and sold.
There is even room for a pointed swipe at the sordid side of life in Korea as an unsavoury life size doll of Captain Yun is produced. The small details also make a point.
A young Seo-hyun (Park So-yi) is treated at the ironically named Utopia medical clinic, while coffee, once the irreplaceable fuel of the nation, is scoffed at as an outdated drink.
Amid the bleak backdrop the two leads shine.
Kim Hyun-joo plays the adoring mother reduced to a replica with assurance, especially in chilling scenes when stuck in a broken metallic torso fresh from another failed imitation battle.
In the last lead role before her untimely passing, the great Kang Soo-yeon shows both stoicism and heartfelt emotion in equal measure, and fittingly Jung_E is dedicated to her memory.