“Seobok” is clumsy in its storytelling, but finds its strength in quieter moments reflecting on the human condition.
Former intelligence agent Ki-Hun (Gong Yoo) is tasked with protecting and transporting Seobok (Park Bo-Gum), the first genetically modified specimen. Although Seobok looks human, his cells hold the cure to every kind of disease and can even grant eternal life. The side effect of the gene manipulation gives Seobok a form of psychokinesis, which will come in handy, since several armed forces will stop at nothing to acquire the secrets in his blood.
It’s amazing how strong the performances are in this film considering its flimsy script. There’s an exposition dump in the movie between a government official and police chief that is reminiscent of the Architect in “The Matrix Reloaded.” However, this time around the monologue is done by someone who, well… can’t act. It’s awkward, laughable, and cringeworthy. Fortunately, that character is only in one scene.
Ki-Heon is a tortured character, to say the least. Afflicted by an inoperable brain tumor and a dark secret, he’s more annoyed by the mission to protect Seobok but does so from selfish motivations when he’s promised a treatment for his ailment. Yoo does a phenomenal job conveying Heon’s growth and emotional responses when faced with his own mortality. So much so that it’s almost forgivable that the story includes a plot point involving Ki-Heon’s betraying another intelligence agent. The dialogue sounds like a B movie with lines like “if we get this phone to the press, we can shut down this whole operation.” What did this government organization do that requires it be toppled, and what kind of evidence have they acquired? The scene plays out to generate sympathy for Heon’s predicament. This plot detail comes out of nowhere and doesn’t have much of a resolution, yet Heon and the rest of the case sell the moment even if it comes across as contrived.
Just in the same way, Bo-Gum also gives a stellar performance as the non-human Seobok. There’s a vulnerability, innocence, and purity in his questioning of Heon that leads to simple yet deep conversations and questions about the human condition and the existential crisis of what it means to live and die. Despite some terrible lines of dialogue, Bo-Gum carries the scene by emoting how lonely an eternal life would be.
Another weakness of the film is the action stunts involving car chase sequences. The CGI is noticeable, and a lot of the action seems to be done by inexperienced stunt drivers. There’s a lot of swerving and not a lot of kinetic energy, so it feels like more of a chore to watch than an exciting experience. Luckily, these scenes are short and few and far between. Unfortunately, the fight scenes aren’t particularly impressive either, but the display of Seobok’s powers are the selling point of the action. It’s something like Chronicle meets Dragonball Z, if you can imagine such a thing.
Thankfully, the film gets a huge boost thanks to its cinematography, score, and set designs. All three work together with the strong performers from the leads to create some of the film’s most memorable moments. Youn-wook Jo’s score is perfect. The opening sequence has a track that is minimalistic in its composition, but the tones and vocals are enough to suggest we’re in a technologically advanced world that’s not too different from our world today. The range of her score is nothing short of impressive. She constructs beautiful and haunting melodies for when Ki-Heon drowns in a dream sequence and swelling, heroic music for the movie’s climax. Jo’s score does it all, working in conjunction with everything else to accentuate what you should feel.
As the film’s cinematographer, Mo-gae Lee painstakingly chooses what to frame in each shot, and it shows. The last time I saw this much care was on Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. Seobok is housed in a cargo ship that is meant to be a kind of Noah’s Ark for scientific developments. In addition to the impressive set designs for the labs and Seobok’s habitat, Lee can shoot these small spaces in a way that sells the idea that these are state of the art facilities. He not only does this with constructed locations but natural ones as well. The way he films both natural and artificial light evoke another world. Locations with green grass look lush, while a picturesque sunset beach provides a sad yet wonderous background. Lee does this for every shot in the movie. Nothing is shown without purpose.
Overall, this movie is better than it has any right to be, which is impressive given its weak script. This is an example of a strong cast turning a script with little to nothing on the page into authentic characters.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS: The bonus features include an English dub and a couple featurettes that go behind the scenes with the cast and crew expanding on their characters and performance.
The Big Comic Page was provided a screener of the movie. Seobok is available on Digital, Blu-ray & DVD February 15, 2022.
The writer of this piece is: Laurence Almalvez
Laurence tweets from @IL1511