What defines “personhood”? This is a complex question that gets debated quite a bit, specifically in regard to pre-birth healthcare. Is it from the moment of cell division, the presence of a heartbeat, or the moment a life reaches prime gestation? Director Lee Yong-ju (Possessed), with his third feature film Seobok, a science-fiction thriller, asks if a lab-bred clone deserves the same rights and considerations as a natural-born individual. Though wrapped up in an action thriller package, the questions within Seobok are rich, textured, and given plenty of opportunity to be explored. Brilliantly, what it does not do is answer the metaphysical questions it presents to you.
Ailing retired secret service agent Min Ki-hun (Gong Yoo) is approached by his former boss, Chief Ahn (Jo Woo-jin), with a mission that could heal the brain tumor that’s slowly and painfully killing him. The mission is simple: serve as the private protector of a young man, Seobok (Park Bo-gum), during a transfer from a secured facility. The boy, Ki-hun learns, was conceived in a lab and was born with extraordinary gifts, from telekinesis to immortality, and it’s Seobok’s body which could create an antidote for Ki-hun’s tumor. With hope on the horizon, he takes the job, not realizing that there are external forces and hidden motivations at play which turn a simple protection job into a fight for the soul of humanity.
Given the premise, it would be fair to presume a certain amount of action, especially since the film is being repped by distributor Well Go USA whose recent or upcoming releases include films like Raging Fire (2021), Undercover Punch & Gun (2021), and Silat Warriors: Deed of Death (2021). But I’d also remind you that Well Go’s catalog includes family drama Little Q (2021) and Oscar-nominated Better Days (2020), as well as others that don’t skew straight action. I bring this up as a caution because though the film’s narrative is a science-fiction action thriller, this doesn’t automatically equate to it being action-packed. Rather, Seobok heavily leans on the interpersonal, raising stakes through relationships rather than through increasing violence. This may be a turn-off for a certain audience expecting blood-soaked intrigue. To draw a direct comparison from other Well Go releases, if you enjoyed the superpowered psychological thriller family drama Freaks (2019) and the action thriller The Witch: Subversion (2020), Seobok will absolutely be your jam. The violence within is more communicative of discordant relationships, is used sparingly, and is used to great impact on the narrative. Seobok’s powers are a bit of a Chekov’s Gun, so it’s easy to presume they’ll grow in presentation; however, there’s a conflict born in that the audience both delights in Seobok’s devastation and is fearful of it.
This duality gets to the heart of the central theme regarding personhood and personal autonomy. At the start, the characters around Seobok refer to him as “the specimen,” which makes sense given the secrecy required to ensure that the rest of the world doesn’t interfere with his initial conception and daily treatment. It’s a clinical descriptor, devoid of passion, but also of humanity. It’s a precursor, one telegraphed out front, but forgotten by the audience just as easily, which establishes that Ki-hun and others, from the start, think of Seobok as a vessel for all of humanity’s ills, pure and simple. This, of course, also provides the audience with their own starting point for Ki-hun, specifically, from which to explore his character. Gratefully, there’s more than just the mental switch of perceiving Seobok first as a living salve to realized person, there’s something deeper and more significant to the story. Credit to writers Lee, Yeom Gyu-hun, Lee Jae-min, Jeo Min-suk for finding a lovely thematic parallel between Ki-hun and Seobok beyond protector/protectee, enabling the story to explore issues of life and death, personal responsibility, and what we owe each other. That last bit isn’t too far off from the conflict of personhood as it challenges the audience to consider the needs of the many over those of the few. In a greater context, it also allows for exploration of the seemingly inherent selfish nature of humanity that we’re willing to enslave another, demeaning them all the way, as long as it makes us feel even slightly empowered or less fearful. This is one of the more unexpected aspects of Seobok, especially as these moments are often highlighted by sequences of action. These moments, though fewer than you’d expect, pack an emotional wallop. Unlike those in most American-made action films, fight sequences in Asian cinema do a much better job of communicating internal struggle, emotional need, or, yes, affection. In recent release Hydra, the three main fight sequences are entirely wordless, requiring the actors to land their fight choreography while also communicating kinesthetically. The final two fights are extraordinary in their speed and ferocity, but also for how the actors conveyed fear or success. While the fight sequences in Seobok are not nearly as quick or intense as in Hydra, primarily because many take advantage of Seobok’s telekinesis, the staging of these conflicts allows for communication of Seobok’s and even Ki-hun’s emotional journeys in that moment. More importantly, the handling of Seobok as a character by the creative team enables the audience to see Seobok as more than as healer or killer, but as a complex individual that’s far more actualized than the characters who declare what Seobok is could ever acknowledge.
It’s easy enough to enjoy Seobok as a disposable entertainment. The performances by Yoo and Park are fantastic, both able to convey their individual needs realistically, even in the heightened circumstances. Personally, I’ve yet to see Yoo in a film where he wasn’t a raw nerve (he played the father in excellent zombie film Train to Busan), but this film enables him to do more than try to survive, making for a very believable former assassin who believes his brain tumor is physical retribution for past mistakes. Similarly, though I’m not familiar with his work, Park offers a consistently even performance, capturing the understandably dissociative reaction to everything he sees or experiences outside of the lab. How could he know the right amount to pay a gas attendant if he’s never held money nor needed to know what it is? How could he know what the proper interpersonal response is to seeing other people eat? Park’s Seobok isn’t cold so much as detached and it’s not easy to capture consistently, yet he does every time.
Seobok won’t work for everyone. Either some will find the ethical questions empty or the action sequences too few. For this reviewer, there’s a wonderful balance within the narrative so that the questions, though overt, aren’t answered by the film. Even as the thriller aspect picks up so that Ki-hun and Seobok don’t know who to trust, including each other, Seobok miraculously never loses its moral quandary, substituting action for answers. That’s a fault for many films, especially big blockbusters, which supplant bombast for meaning. You’ll get plenty of “oh wow” bombast in Seobok, but it never forgets that there’s a real issue at its core. If all of this sounds good to you, though, then you’re in for a special kind of treat. With luck, the home release from Well Go USA will include some behind the scenes nuggets to further explore Lee’s philosophically conscientious science-fiction thriller.
Currently streaming during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.