Starring Gong Yoo, Park Bo-Gum, Jo Woo-Jin
Directed by Lee Yong-Zoo
A unique one-of-a-kind individual goes on the run from ruthless, heavily armed forces with only a good man with a gun to protect him.
We’ve seen this kind of sci-fi thriller before. Hollywood has made plenty.
But less so in this contemplative Asian manner. Probably because it can get tedious, slow and, well, quite unlively for a movie asking questions about living and dying.
The older ex-intelligence agent, Min Ki-Hun (Train to Busan's Gong Yoo), is a damaged fella with a brain tumour and only months to live. The younger specimen, Seobok (Park Bo-Gum from TV’s Love in the Moonlight), is an unsmiling, unhurried and unsullied chap with deep thoughts and superhuman powers. They’re chased by shady, very violent groups — including unsavoury Americans — aiming to either capture or kill them.
As the two flee, they butt heads like a pair of overly serious road-tripping theorists locked in a talkathon. The agent just wanna deliver his charge to safety. The specimen, on the other hand, wanna ask as many questions as he can about what existence exactly means.
I keep saying “specimen” because that’s what the runaway is referred to here, despite Seobok looking prettily pristine like a heartthrob escapee from BTS. One woman tells his bodyguard-companion, “Your little brother is so handsome.”
The kid is a cloned thingy created in a mad-scientist lab hidden in a disused ship that doubles as some sort of futuristic ark offering dubious salvation. He has genetically engineered cells in his body that hold the key to immortality.
“Seobok is an undying being,” Min is told as the nefarious plan is exposed to be a typical dark-government secret. The prized specimen is hooked into a blood-draining machine permanently to harvest his special stem cells as the fabled elixir of eternal life to enable humans to live forever. Which, actually, isn’t a bad idea if only those bastards didn’t treat their asset as an overworked instant pump.
Min’s reward for protecting Seobok is those harnessed cells may save his life. “If you die, I die,” he tells his newfound partner as he slowly realises that the painful experiments inflicted upon the kid may not be worth the aggravation. He winces as he sees Seobok suffering in pain while being injected with a potent serum as he’s tied to a chair.
His enhanced buddy is like a combo of Magneto and Jean-Grey from the X-Men, with brainwaves so powerful they can stop bullets, fling stuff, crush metal and gently part actual sea waves. This last act puts the humanity back into his inhuman origin as it allows for a most picturesque Zen-style Korean postcard scene where birds fly in a wondrous pattern and sand, pebbles and waves form a beauteous display on a dusky beach.
All K-drama needs this wholesome goodness. Which, at heart, is what this flick truly is.
Don’t get me wrong. Things still get blown up to smithereens in big-action set-pieces. Highway ambushes, deadly shootouts, drone attacks and a huge gun atop an armoured vehicle is pointed straight at Seobok in a showdown of Gun Vs Hunk. For added wow effect, one baddie gets his head smashed onto the floor until the concrete breaks while another is crushed to death inside his own wheelchair as it is compressed, Magneto-like, into a little pulp.
The murderous government agency hunting them is called “the Company”(presumably Korea’s CIA), led by a cruel smiling tiger in a nice suit, Chief Ahn (Jo Woo-Jin from Default), who wants to terminate Seobok because the kid has turned into a national security risk as a very dangerous weapon. Insidious Trump-wacko American allies sell him the notion that Seobok’s immortality will lead to utter chaos. “Death is the fundamental element holding life together,” goes their twisted rightwing logic.
Meanwhile, also pursuing them are the heinous lab eggheads headed by an old gazillionaire-fiend with his private army of ang moh mercenaries and his own Thanos-level madness. “I’ll let some live and let some die; I get to make the call,” he proclaims. It’s enough, I tell you, to make our two heroes run all the way to Tahiti.
But, unlike Hollywood big bangs, they just primarily provide action interludes which serve the overall plodding proceedings. Because Seobok, deep down, is really simply a morose, slow-burning pseudo-philosophical drama about two fan faves of differing generations who look so alike looking glum and grim with their matching mop-top hairstyles that they put the actual “bro” back into bromance.
Basically, if you’re into older dudes, you’ll be drawn to Gong Yoo’s protector Min who’s the emotional, guilt-stricken heart here with a cowardly dark past. He’s complicit in the murder of a female colleague previously. But, hey, death is very scary, right? So, due his terminal illness, he wants desperately to live longer.
I don’t blame this fella. He’s real and totally believable. “Is it so wrong to want to live?” he retorts in anger when his immortal friend judges and derides his disappointing human flaws.
The unreal bit is, of course, Seobok who, with his immovable face, looks more alien than an overly Botox-ed screen idol. If you dig the K-Pop look, you’ll be partial to Park’s passive, pensive and downright sad relentlessly curious brain nerd who, throughout the film, wishes to know what dying means and what his fate holds. It’s kinda like being tagged with Woody Allen on an existential road trip, but with less fun and less controversial female relatives.
Freed from his bubble prison in the lab for the first time, Seobok keeps asking impossible questions — “What does it feel to be dying?, “What does forever mean?” and “Do you think dying is really like sleeping?” — which makes this the most depressing thing I've seen since my income tax form.
Fortunately, Park isn’t annoying, there’s a moving, poignant discovery to be found about Seobok’s origin and best of all, the chemistry between both main dudes isn’t too shabby. I mean, you can quite see these guys still arguing about life, death, heck, the whole damn universe during their lunch break.
Unfortunately, though, this straightforward story doesn’t contain clever twists or ironic surprises which Korean shows can turn out on a dime. And, worse, director Lee Yong-Zoo (Architecture 101, Living Death) doesn’t see it necessary to inject any humour or cute relief into his movie.
A sequence where the pursued pair enters a town to find a safe house ends without any memorable fish-out-of-water payoff. And, strangely, despite having such a current hottie like Park in the midst, there’s zero significant female presence except for one woman who’s revealed to be more than just a fishy research doctor in Seobok’s laboratory home.
Maybe director Lee is just in a too sombre, too sober guys-only mood. In which case, he should’ve have taken the elixir here not of immortality, but of fun.
Because his ruminative tale isn’t as deep or profound as he thinks it is.
It's a bore-fest when it could've been a more-fest. (**1/2)
Photo: Clover Films