Saturday, August 07, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Seobok

He has the life expectancy of novelist James Gunn’s The Immortals and the emotional maturity of a test tube. Everyone wants a piece of the genetically engineered clone, because he can’t die unless he is killed. Fortunately, he has the protection of former intelligence agent Min Ki-hun. The ex-spy looks like a basket case, because he is, but Min can still take down the bad guys in screenwriter-director Lee Yong-ju Seobok, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Disgusted by the dirty work of his last assignment, Min has walked away from the agency. He also has a terminal brain tumor. Weirdly, that makes him the perfect candidate to serve as Seobok’s bodyguard. If he can keep the clone alive, he gets first dibs on a Seobok mojo-extracting treatment.

Of course, that will be the tricky part. A shadowy cabal already assassinated the American scientist evaluating the Seobok project and the clone himself is presumed to be their next target. However, Seobok (named after a Qin Dynasty messenger dispatched to find the elixir of life) is hardly helpless. It turns out he has massive Professor X-like telekinetic powers that were an unanticipated byproduct of his radical genetic engineering.

Lee is working with a familiar template (cynical government agent learns to respect the humanity in the guinea pig is tasked with protecting), but the action sequences are crisply executed and Gong Yoo is remarkably haggard and world-weary as Min, despite his babyface. The problem is Seobok (portrayed with utter emotionlessness by Park Bo-gum) truly has the personality of a lab rat. The silent steeliness thing works much better for Jo Woo-jin as the sinister intelligence chief Ahn Ik-hyun. However, some of the best dramatic work comes from Jang Young-nam as Lim Se-eun, Seobok’s surrogate mother and project scientist.

As a filmmaker, Lee has managed to be all over the place, even though he has not been very prolific. This is his third film since 2009, following up his demonic thriller
Possessed and the rom-com Architecture 101. On purely technical criteria, this is by far his best work. However, it is a real bummer that a lot of the bad guys are apparently American spies (seriously folks, you all should want them out there working on your crazy northern neighbors).

Seobok is confidently paced and the big blowout finish is better realized than half the stuff you see in branded-world superhero movies. Okay rather than awesome, Seobok screens as an on-demand selection of this year’s Fantasia.