The Weekend Watch: "Jung_E"
Train to Busan and Hellbound director Yeon Sang-ho is in familiar dystopian territory once again with Jung_E. But this time, he eschews sci-fi’s more bombastic tropes in favor of a human drama that explores maternal love, memory, and what it means to truly be free.
The Plot (with mild spoilers)
It is the near future, and all of the earth has been flooded. Humanity is now entangled in a brutal civil war that has been raging for nearly three decades, with no end in sight.
Somewhere, a gunfight between a female soldier and a heavily-armed robotic hound rages on. But suddenly, a bullet zips, and the soldier drops dead. But no one is concerned. After all, it’s just a simulation. In fact, it’s the 17th fight simulation of a female android soldier they call “Jung_E.”
Developed by the military AI firm Kronoid, “Jung_E” is a soldier with a robotic body and a brain duplicated from one of Korea’s finest soldiers, the legendary Yoon Jung-yi (kinda like Robocop). After being injured in a gunfight, this celebrated war hero falls into a coma. Desperate to keep her alive, Jung-yi’s family eventually signs her brain over to Kronoid without much thought for the implications.
Thirty-five years hence and the captain's body remains comatose. However, her brain has now been ceaselessly replicated and experimented on by Kronoid in the hopes of creating the next super-soldier. Her daughter, Seo-hyun, now leads these experiments and witnesses every tortuous simulation that her “mother” goes through in the lab.
One day, rumors of the civil war ending reach Kronoid. Suddenly, their efforts toward building a super-soldier are no longer necessary. With no more wars to fight, there is no more point in developing android soldiers like Jung_E. Faced with the termination of her mother’s memories, Seo-hyun must now decide on the future of her long-abused (and misused) brain.
Most sci-fi movies are action movies at their core. There may be some slow parts to wade through while we wait for the plot to build up, and then we get treated to a bevy of action scenes before the dramatic end. But in Jung_E, director Yeon trades his usual bombastic explosions and a large ensemble cast for a more intimate drama, much like 2020's Seo Bok which starred Gong Yoo, and the 2022 sci-fi series Yonder with Shin Ha-kyu. Eschewing gratuitous blitzes and long-drawn firefights that are a staple of dystopian sci-fi, Jung_E instead opts to be a rather low-key and (shockingly) subtle exploration of what makes one truly human and free.
Steady performances, especially from Kang Soo-yeon, Kim Hyun-joo (yasss gurl, slay!), and Ryu Kyung-soo guarantee to keep one invested as the truths in Kronoid unfold. The special effects are also quite stunning – Korea is once again flexing its massive CG resources here -- and they’re just getting better with every film. Unfortunately, it does run the risk of too much plot exposition in the first half, but director Yeon has managed to whittle it down to the barest that we need to know and thankfully keeps it curt for the rest of the show. Jung_E also earns big points from this sci-fi fan for being focused on the enduring love between a mother and her daughter, instead of the usual testosterone-flooded battle flick that dominates the genre.
As the many versions of "Jung_E" go through one tortuous and exhausting simulation after another, we find ourselves asking: Is this android suffering real pain, or is it merely a vehicle of a dismembered brain? Does inheriting human memories make an android human? And when those memories are erased and bandied about, is our identity – and humanity – negated? Then there's the issue with combat veterans who have given life and limb for country, only to be given the direst of medical care and sustenance. Jung_E gets into all these questions, making it a melodrama disguised in steel and sci-fi.
Jung_E’s real strength is not in its powerhouse effects nor predictable fight scenes but lies in its deceptively simple story that asks about the significance of memory, death, and freedom. While it certainly won’t blow anyone’s mind, Jung_E is still a rare maternal drama in the realm of Asian sci-fi, and a good effort nevertheless.