Fantasia presents Seobok, book tickets here.
Mark Twain once famously wrote, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” Here, Twain explores how the concept of death is central to human behaviour and the importance of death in living life to the full. After all, without our conscious realisation of individual mortality, would the human race not fall further into individualistic and selfish behaviour? If this is true, we can easily argue that death keeps life in balance. Our fear of the end allowing us to live in the present.
These themes have long held a place in science fiction filmmaking, as directors explore what it means to be human. And from Instersteller to High Life, many have explored the notion of human mortality in an ever-expanding universe of infinite possibilities. However, with Seobok, director Lee Yong-Ju brings us down to earth by studying genetic engineering, mortality and human science. His film, reflecting similar themes to those found in D.A.R.Y.L (1985) and Blade Runner (1982) while equally embracing the comic book world of the X-Men. The result is a fascinating mix of genres. Here, Lee Yong-Ju merges science fiction with electrifying action and classic road trip drama. And while these tonal shifts may prove to be a barrier for those expecting a pure sci-fi/action movie. For me, the result was an exciting and engaging kaleidoscope of themes and ideas.
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For retired government agent, Gi-hon (Gong Yoo), life is slowly falling apart. His days, a toxic mix of regret and drugs, as he attempts to control a brain tumour slowly eating away at his life. However, when his ex-employer returns from the shadows, Gi-hon finds himself blackmailed into taking on a new mission. His top-secret task, the escort of a valuable scientific product. But, when Gi-hon arrives at the hidden lab, he is surprised to find the product is, in fact, a young man.
Seobok (Park Bo-Gum) is a product of genetic engineering, a clone created to solve humankind’s most significant flaw; death. His blood, carrying properties that will enable the human race to find immortality. His life, one of a mere gold plated lab rat, as he is prodded and probed. However, a side effect of genetic engineering has also given Seobok potentially destructive telekinetic powers. His life and abilities, regulated by daily injections of a specially designed serum. For Gi-hon, while unbelievable, Seobok also opens the door to potential recovery from the silently ticking time bomb in his head.
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But, as Gi-hon accompanies Seobok in the armoured transport designed to protect them, a surprise assault on their convoy places Gi-hon & Seobok in mortal danger. And as they run for their lives, the hopes, dreams and thoughts of both men collide. The world around them descending into chaos as governments, wealthy individuals, and foreign powers fight to control the power Seobok holds.
Seobok will undoubtedly divide critical and public opinion. For example, those seeking an action movie may be disappointed by the drama that weaves through the electrifying but short action sequences. While at the same time, those seeking sci-fi may feel Seobok strays too far into comic book territory, especially in its closing act. However, for those entering Lee Yong-Ju’s world with an open mind, Seobok will enthral; its polished performances, action, and story, more than a match for any Hollywood production. In fact, as with so many films of recent years, Seobok once again highlights the creativity and brilliance of current South Korean filmmaking. Here, Lee Yong-Ju rejects the need to copy the Americanised tropes of the genre Seobok inhabits, instead embracing a uniquely Korean aesthetic. One where human drama, science fiction, action and adventure co-exist in a new world of possibilities.
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When this creativity dovetails with the sublime score of Yeong-Wook Jo and the rich cinematography of Mo-Gae Lee, Seobok jumps from the screen. Its bold, fresh approach to a series of tried and tested themes, engaging, exciting and inspiring. Of course, this success would not be possible without the lead performances of Gong Yoo and Park Bo-Gum, both of whom effortlessly dovetail action set pieces with the films broader themes of individual mortality. And that brings me back to Mark Twain’s thoughts on death. Here, Seobok attempts to navigate the critical role of death in defining human life. Our obsession with eternal youth and longevity, a danger that could destroy the very foundations of humanity. And while Seobok may not always manage to reflect all of the complexities inherent in this discussion, its core message remains clear throughout.