Film, Film Review

REVIEW: JUNG_E (2023) dir. Yeon Sang-ho

Proposed sequel: JUNG_FU2


Kim Hyun-joo as Jung_E

Can a movie succeed in touching upon a wide array of topics without leaving a mess at the end? Maybe — in the same slim chance as a professor not saying midway through the semester, “We have much to cover and we are falling behind.” There’s no shame to it; simplicity can be enough. Like the 2.5-hour odysseys of last year, sometimes a movie that tries to do so much and fails is like being on a lazy river for the most of the ride and then finding yourself on turbulent white rapids for the last stretch. It’s not to say that that’s not an exciting ride, but if poorly executed, we’ll find ourselves at an unfinished conclusion before we even understood where we were going.

At a welcoming 99 minutes, JUNG_E is one of the first of this year’s crop of Netflix original films. There is little fanfare for its arrival except for those who may be following Yeon Sang-ho, director of Train to Busan and creator of Hellbound. However, instead of the sunshine and breeze that come as reminders of vitality in lazy rivers, JUNG_E is a sort of chamber film that sharpens the senses in the dark corridors of an isolated, stifling laboratory. It’s when we start to piece together the lurking dangers that the plot makes a break for it — the white-rapids climax.

One of JUNG_E‘s greatest advantages is that its elevator pitch to the audience — a scientist uses her mother’s neurological core to build an artificial combat soldier to fight in a dystopian civil war — prepares very little for the encompassing themes that supplement its rather insane premise. Seohyun (Kang Soon-yeon, in her final role before her untimely death last spring) leads the experiment on her mother Jung_E (Kim Hyun-joo), a once-famous mercenary who was fatally wounded during a mission forty years ago. Permission to recycle Jung_E’s mental functions is granted due to this world’s accepted commodification of a person’s mind when they are about to die. People are given the choice to transfer their brains to a mechanical body; however, their autonomy is dependent on what they can afford. Despite Jung_E’s literal sacrifice to her country, her family are forced to choose Type C — the lowest tier that allows the government to replicate and reproduce her mind for different projects and brands. It would be an almost laughably on-the-nose dystopia if the joke wasn’t closely hinged on to our own reality, the one in which people skip insulin doses because price gouging on vital medications is still legal.

The film starts at Jung_E’s 17th failed attempt at surviving at a simulated battlefield. Seohyun’s professional demeanor leads the tone of their relationship (if there are any remnants; Jung_E doesn’t remember anything after her biological death and thus does not recognize her daughter as a middle-aged woman); she is largely unmoved when she watches Jung_E get stuck at the same point of the mission for unknown reasons. However, within a gaze that feels buried from her co-workers who take Seohyun’s emotional detachment at face value, we can see that there is something that still shudders when her mother’s android body is torn apart for further renovations and upgrades.

Kang Soon-yeon as Seohyun

Even in the midst of a war, the enemy established in the film resides on the homeland. The face of Seohyun’s troubles is Sang-Hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo), the lab director who seems so personally invested in Jung_E’s success that his limitless ambitions come off as cruel. And indeed, having received the Winter Soldier treatment, Jung_E is treated like a pawn. Not remembering anything after her death or able to form meaningful connections with the research team, Jung_E’s humanistic core seems unreachable — that is, until Seohyun notices an unidentifiable area of Jung_E’s brain that lights up when she is close to her failure point in the mission. Unlike Amazon Prime’s The Boys, which revels in jaw-dropping ultraviolence to discern the fallacies in the superhero pedestal, JUNG_E is anti-superhero by its portrayal of a commercialized human’s descent. How do heroes exist in public when their identities reside in the public domain? As the film unfolds (including a benign, though unexpected, development that might dull the elevator pitch for some viewers), we see that whatever is left of Jung_E can be still retrievable by the hands that don’t care about the human essence.

Above all, there is an emotional factor that I haven’t touched upon yet. I once played Superfight — a spawn of the Cards Against Humanity collective where you and your opponent(s) each draw a card and debate who would win in a fight — and the fighters in this case were Superman with a handicap (rabies, I think) and your mom. The game eventually boiled down to a sort of drunken argument between listing Superman’s canonical abilities and me just shouting, “But it’s your mom! Is she not the strongest person in the world?” It’s this instinctive belief that I carry with me, sober or inebriated, that felt the most vibrant in this movie. Jung_E is continuously beaten and demolished in front of her daughter, who is numb to the helplessness of the situation. Yet, despite how despondent the situation plays out, we hold out for the hope that there is something unshakable in Jung_E, a mother who happened to be a soldier. Without saying too much: if I didn’t win that game of Superfight, I’d say that JUNG_E is the better reward (and best believe it happens in the white-rapids stretch in commendable Ex Machina fashion).

The film plays into the “Netflix original” genre trap in the sense that the production and set design is a bit uninspired, but one can’t help but feel there is something ready to emerge underneath the droning experiments and Seohyun’s simmering frustration. Those looking for battle sequences might be disappointed to find that JUNG_E is not the tech-action film that it appears. Instead, it thrives on drawn-out tension: the kind that evokes emotion for the ones that sacrifice for love or food for thought when we see where our true enemies come from. JUNG_E becomes unexpectedly topical in many areas without needing to, and yet, it succeeds in the rare feat of excluding itself from the usual January dump. Watch it for Mother’s Day or for Veteran’s Day. Watch it in an pro-android double feature with M3GAN or in tandem to the next bumbling-nerd-dad supersuit flick. It’s almost unsurprising that JUNG_E can do it all because in the end, it exemplifies the notion that the ones who took care of us can do it all.

dir. Yeon Sang-ho
99 min.

Streaming on Netflix beginning Friday, 1/20

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