Starring popular actors Gong Yoo and Park Bo-gum, sci-fi thriller Seo Bok was one of 2021’s most eagerly anticipated Korea movies. It, alongside movies like Space Sweepers, embodied K-entertainment’s aspirations to conquer a new genre: science fiction. Alas, while Seo Bok’s premise about an immortality-granting clone may pique viewer’s philosophical interest, its execution upon that premise—particularly the lack of compelling antagonists—leaves it short of high expectations.
Boy Cures Cancer?
Seo Bok begins with the assasination of an American scientist. He works on a secret Korean cloning research project, and serves no other purpose other than to compel the project’s leads to call in our protagonist, Gi-heon (Gong Yoo). A former intelligence agent, Gi-heon is dying of a brain tumor and wracked with guilt over some unspecified past tragedy. Chief Ahn, his former boss and now the intelligence agency leader attached to the cloning project, asks Gi-heon to help escort the project’s “specimen” to a new, safer location. Gi-heon agrees, in part because this “specimen” might hold an experimental cure to his brain cancer.
It turns out that the specimen is a young boy named Seo Bok (Park Bo-gum). He is a genetically modified clone who, through some happenstance of pseudoscientific gobbledygook, generates stem cells that can be used to treat any disease—and make humans immortal. As a side effect, Seo Bok also has telekinetic superpowers, allowing him to move objects and generate pressure waves around him.
To no sci-fi fan’s surprise, the project’s scientists emphasize to Gi-heon that, despite appearances and the fact that he’s completely sentient, Seo Bok is not actually human. Instead, these scientists say, Seo Bok is analogous to a pig bred for its insulin. Even as medical livestock though, Seo Bok is immensely valuable—and a team of American mercenaries try to attack Seo Bok as Gi-heon transports him to a “safer” location. Gi-heon fends off the attack, and flees onto Korea’s roads with Seo Bok.
Brotherly Korean Sci-fi
All this sets up an ambitious premise around exploring what it means to be human, and what it means to live or die. As Gi-heon and Seo Bok roadtrip around Korea, they have a chance to probe the nooks and crannies of each others’ senses of humanity—and grow closer along the way. This is especially true for Seo Bok, who has never lived outside a lab. It’s a brotherly Korean take, complete with cup ramyeon slurping, upon a trope tried many times in Hollywood with the likes of Ex Machina, iRobot, and so forth.
Unfortunately, Seo Bok’s execution upon this “human man and not-quite-human explore their humanity together” template falls into an uncanny valley. The movie exists in the right ballpark; its technical details and cinematography are competent, and it blends together all the right themes. However, it stumbles in the last mile when it comes to creating dramatic tension and compelling character dynamics. While we learn what motivates Gi-heon (getting rid of his tumor) and Seo Bok (trying to be a “real boy”), the obstacles that stand in the way of these desires feel underpowered and awkward. Much of this is because Seo Bok lacks a compelling villain.
Early on, we learn that, in a classic Korean nationalism-inflected trope, Gi-heon’s boss Chief Ahn is in cahoots with evil Americans to steal Seo Bok. It’s never clear what motivates Ahn to betray his country and become a two-faced slimeball though. Ahn isn’t particularly effective either, continually sending men with guns to become cannon fodder against Seo Bok’s telekinetic brain waves, and never bothering to innovate his tactics.
Other puzzling plot implausibilities build upon Ahn’s incompetence. For example, Ahn tells his men to monitor Korea’s nationwide CCTV’s for Gi-heon and Seo Bok’s black SUV—but the two manage to drive through half of Korea undetected, despite never switching cars or even license plates. Only when Gi-heon and Seo Bok obviously draw attention to themselves, or literally drive to where the bad guys are, do Ahn and his agents encounter them.
What’s even more confusing is that Seo Bok introduces a second villain later on, one whose backstory and motivations are even less developed than Chief Ahn’s. This dissipates dramatic tension, and frankly confuses viewers. What’s even worse is that neither this villain nor Chief Ahn have much bearing on Gi-heon and Seo Bok’s exploration of humanity. The whole movie might’ve been more compelling and philosophically resonant if it were just Gi-heon and Seo Bok driving around Korea without the occasional annoyances of wayward intelligence agents and hollow antagonists.
Ultimately, it seemed like Seo Bok wanted it all—a star-studded cast, a premise primed for philosophical musing, dynamic action scenes, and success among critics and audiences alike. Instead, the movie bit off more it could chew, and became a hollow clone of prior works in the “exploration of humanity” sci-fi subgenre. If Seo Bok and Space Sweepers are meant to be indicators, Korean cinema’s foray into sci-fi is not getting off to a great start.
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Seo Bok (Korean: 서복)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Lee Yong-ju. First released April 15, 2021. Running time 1hr 54min. Starring Gong Yoo, Park Bo-gum, Jang Young-nam.