I am by no means an expert in Korean cinema — I loved “Oldboy” and “Train to Busan.” Still, outside of the big-name titles that make their way stateside, either by word-of-mouth reputation or widespread critical acclaim, I’m largely ignorant of the conventions and hallmarks of Korean filmmaking.
I am, however, a huge science-fiction nerd, and because of the amount of anime I watch, I’m unafraid of subtitles. So when “JUNG_E,” which debuted on Netflix in January, bounced across my radar, I gave it a watch.
Director Yeon Sang-ho’s (“Train to Busan,” “Psychokinesis”) “JUNG_E” takes place in a near-future ravaged by climate change, which sparked humanity to seek refuge in man-made shelters in outer space. A handful of these shelters form an alliance, fashion themselves as the “Adrian Republic,” and attack earth and other shelters, who make up the “Allied Forces.” All of this is explained in a text-crawl information dump, a la “Star Wars.”
The film begins with an Allied Forces captain, Yun Jung-yi (Kim Hyun-joo), kicking some serious sci-fi robot butt in a fight sequence so well-choreographed and dripping in CGI it might as well have been ripped right from a video game. The four-legged, wheeled robot she fights looks like a Boston Dynamics experiment that got lost in a Heckler & Koch factory.
In a “Blade Runner”-esque twist, after falling in combat, it is revealed to the audience that this is not, in fact, the real Captain Yun Jung-yi, but a “prosthetic body” loaded with an AI copy of her brain. The entire opening sequence was a simulation in a lab that tested the AI against Jung-yi’s final, failed mission. These combat robots are being developed as part of project JUNG_E.
At the center of the project is chief scientist Yun Seo-hyun (Kang Soo-yeon), the daughter of the original Jung-yi. Her work at Kronoid, the laboratory creating the JUNG-E combat clones, revolves around getting her mother’s AI-copied brain to complete the final mission she failed — the one that we viewers were introduced to in the film’s opening.
The real Jung-yi, who has been in a coma for decades at this point in the story, is a famous mercenary and war hero, who we find out only joined the fight to pay for Seo-hyun’s childhood cancer surgery. Kronoid convinces the Yun family to allow them to clone Jung-yi’s brain. In return, Kronoid pays for Seo-hyun’s living expenses.
As the narrative progresses, we find out that Seo-hyun’s cancer returned at some point and she only has three months to live. As we discover this, the chairman of Kronoid informs Seo-hyun that the JUNG_E project is coming to a close: The Adrian Republic and Allied Forces have come to a peace agreement, so the need for a top-of-the-line combat AI has diminished. Kronoid pivots, insisting on providing domestic servant AI instead.
After walking in on a fellow scientist housing a naked JUNG-E unit in his quarters, Seo-hyun uses this information as a catalyst for achieving closure regarding her mother’s death. (Since her mother’s brain is so perfectly preserved, one wonders why she didn’t ask questions sooner.) Coupled with the guilt it instilled in her, Seo-hyun conspires to thwart Kronoid’s gross misuse of her mother’s legacy and sacrifice.
Director Yeon Sang-ho’s first hit, “Train to Busan,” was lauded by many as an original take on zombie movie tropes established by the likes of George Romero. In that same vein, “JUNG_E” seems to be an attempt to use science-fiction tropes established by famous movies like “Blade Runner” or “iRobot” — films that use artificial intelligence to pose questions about humanity. “JUNG_E” takes these questions and inserts them, rather than integrates them, into a story that also questions the military-industrial complex, the ethics of capitalism (there are three different classes of AI, each with different rights), and the preservation of a beloved family member’s legacy.
Outside of the action sequences, which are a lot of fun, “JUNG_E” rarely feels like a feature film — its 99-minute length makes it feel like a “Black Mirror” one-off or an extended episode of “Love, Death & Robots.” Despite introducing a compelling war story and political background, “JUNG_E” glosses over many of those details. Instead, “JUNG_E” becomes a film about a daughter learning to let go of her guilt surrounding her mother’s death, relegating the futuristic war to background scenery at best and simple exposition at worst.
Most of the time, the emotional weight of a scene rests on Seo-hyun’s shoulders. This burden would be easier to carry if she wasn’t such a one-dimensional character: She becomes a physical embodiment of her own obsession with her mother’s death. One has to assume that because we are given sparse details about her character, there are few other details to be given about her character. That said, there are a handful of genuinely touching mother-daughter moments that end up doing a lot of the emotional heavy lifting for the film.
Despite the war-torn futuristic setting, most of the movie takes place inside a Kronoid lab. The set design doesn’t reinvent any of the sci-fi wheels but provides a convincing backdrop for the narrative events. The few characters that aren’t Seo-hyun or Jung-yi/JUNG_E are interesting, if occasionally a little funky. The music fits well enough to keep from being a distraction but isn’t the most memorable. I’ll reiterate that the action scenes are stellar, but the film as a whole suffers from some pacing issues — we get really great action scenes as bookends for a story built on philosophical questions it doesn’t explore in great depth.
I’ll be frank: “JUNG_E” isn’t going to revolutionize sci-fi cinema. It isn’t bad, necessarily, but unless you’re a sci-fi fan, there might not be much for you here. I’m happy to have seen it, but I doubt I’ll return for a second viewing.
Stream It or Skip It?
Stream it (but only once)!