Review by C.J. Bunce
The good news is Netflix’s homegrown science fiction movies are improving. Compare its latest film, the South Korean cyborg film JUNG_E to earlier films ARQ, iBOY, Extinction, IO, The Adam Project, and Spiderhead, and visually JUNG_E is a league above them all visually. But where it lacks is in its storytelling, and that’s what The Adam Project and Spiderhead did better. What JUNG_E has in spades is good sci-fi ideas, and Sang-ho Yeon, director of Train to Busan, creates a worthy futuristic cousin to Blade Runner 2049 and Alita: Battle Angel–only JUNG_E is better in its visual effects if its script is similarly weak. Despite the action-heavy marketing, the tone is far more bittersweet, close in mood to the 2019 movie I Am Mother, as a scientist attempts to free her soldier mother from a cyborg existence that amounts to a 2023 update of Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg, the story that started all things borg, RoboCop, The Terminator, and Bloodshot.
For sci-fi aficionados, JUNG_E will probably feel a bit too K-drama. All the cool sci-fi–robots and seamlessly designed human/robot hybrids completely hide the CGI noticeably, compared to films like the similarly themed Alita: Battle Angel. The story of JUNG_E benefits by not needing motion capture human faces, which helps its realism.
Like Netflix’s Spiderhead, JUNG_E borrows from classic sci-fi stories, especially Philip K. Dick’s Replicants, but also many of his short stories, and certainly Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. Like Altered Carbon, in this future Earth humans have figured out how to survive their natural lives by having their minds transferred, replicated, duplicated, and cloned. Here a scientist, Yoon Seo-kyun, played by South Korea’s best-known actress Kang Soo-yeon, is the adult daughter of the former leader of the Allied Forces, a warrior who died in battle when her daughter was a young girl in the hospital for cancer. Kang’s performance is incredible, and reflects her high position in Korean cinema. Kang had not acted in nearly a decade, and this was to be her return to film, but she died of a heart attack last year and the film is dedicated to her.
Kang’s character’s mother was Captain Jung, and later the title’s JUNG_E, played by Kim Hyun-joo. Captain Jung was killed in battle and died destitute, not able to afford one of the two higher options to ensure her mind’s survival. Taking option “C,” the Allies could use her mind as they wished, and what they did in the past 15 or so years was find ways to weaponize her into a clone army. Some characters voice their concern that she is the subject for these clones (similar to the Star Wars question, why Jango Fett?). To perfect her as an artificial intelligence construct, they enter her into a virtual reality situation and have her play her last battle over and over in a holodeck-type room, where JUNG_E attempts to make it past the event that caused her death. She keeps proving her naysayers correct, and they ultimately decide to terminate the project, but not before building an army of JUNG clones.
Good sci-fi elements occur when JUNG_E gets her arm torn off and learns she is a cyborg. Armies of clone JUNGs and robots all look like practical effects despite being CG. Similar story surprises occur in the second half of the film, and beyond the solid sci-fi effects, those few standout moments are enough to give the film a try. Viewers may find the story as good as Ex Machina, and the robots and borg creations are certainly as good if not better. Captain Jung’s story is very much the same as that of Steve Austin’s path to becoming the Six Million Dollar Man, and Alex Murphy’s journey to becoming RoboCop.
The Syd Mead-inspired cityscapes are not up to the Blade Runner quality, and certainly not Blade Runner 2049 quality, but they are good enough for this simple story. The film feels like Part One of a longer journey–it’s all origin story for what JUNG_E the character is to become after her daughter helps her escape. Even as a failed military opportunity JUNG_E is useful–the powers that be figure they can market her as a sex toy for fans of the original warrior, after years of already being marketed as an action figure for her folk hero status. This is only part of the impetus for her daughter to take action (why didn’t she do more long before?). Even her daughter had a 12-inch action figure of her mother. The sci-fi crosses over a few times into sci-fi horror, but mainly by theme more than anything visually graphic. The action is similar to that of 1980s action movies–human-sized Transformers battles with more realistic robots.
JUNG_E the warrior is an easy candidate for both 2023 Kick-Ass Heroines of the Year and borg Hall of Fame honoree–along with one other surprise borg in the story you will not likely see coming. The title, if you missed it, is a play on the word JUNGLE, which doesn’t have any deep meaning for the movie.
Ultimately there’s not much story here, which is too bad considering the production values. This one is for fans of futurism and sci-fi aficionados who want to see all the major releases, even if they aren’t perfect. It’s unfortunate Western audiences’ first introduction to Kang Soo-yeon is her last performance. JUNG_E begins streaming this weekend on Netflix.