Seobok (2021, Lee Yong-ju)

The first act of Seobok is an espionage thriller (or the first act of one), the second act is a buddy action road picture, the third act is a Sturm und Drang superhero movie. Well, superhuman movie, at least.

The best part is the second act when spy-who-tried-to-get-out-but-they-pull-him-back-in Gong Yoo is teaching new charge Park Bo-gum the ropes of the world. Park is the world’s first cloned human, except the scientists couldn’t resist genetically engineering him a bit, so he’s also got a decent set of mutant powers. Telekinesis mostly, which looks exactly like Magneto’s powers in a fight scene.

Despite only being ten years old, Park looks twice the age. And we find out there are reasons he’s more verbose and intellectually capable than a tween. He’s awkward, constantly asking Gong questions with the Five Ws. Treacherous action scenes will fully pause so Park can ask Gong why he’s phrasing a statement a certain way. It’s not quite comic relief, but it does make for some amusing interchanges between the pair as they bond.

Gong only took the job—from former boss, Jo Woo-jin—for selfish reasons, which he’s happy to tell Park about, then surprised when Park gets upset about it. Even though all of Park’s mortality lessons have come from “mom” Jang Young-nam, the lead scientist on his project. Her chief sidekick is Park Byeong-eun, who’s kind of a wiener, but is also Gong’s point of contact in the lab. So when it comes time to show off Park Bo-gum’s superpowers, Jang gets him to demonstrate, while Park Byeong-eun tells Gong what they’re seeing.

Also involved with the cloning company is owner Kim Jae-gun, who doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie, despite having a bunch to do in the third act.

The spy stuff is okay—Jo Yeong-wook’s music covers for there not being a lot of story with it, just mood and intensity. Gong and Jo have some history, which we find out about during one of the flashbacks, and their relationship bristles just enough without the details. Especially with the music. Music’s awesome.

The flashbacks are not a particularly successful device. As something happens in the present action, the movie cuts to a pertinent flashback. Sometimes Gong is telling Park a story, sometimes Park is telling Gong, but writer and director Lee skips over giving the actors the chance to act out those moments, instead going full into flashback. There are no rules; there are other flashbacks just for viewer edification. The scenes themselves are usually compelling because Lee tries hard with them; even the worst flashbacks are well-directed sequences. But there are also some well-acted ones, particularly by Jang and Park, whose “mother and son” relationship only exists in those flashbacks.

Seobok opens with one American actor, Paul Battle, not getting any lines, just emoting and being assassinated well, which made it seem like the film would avoid bad American performances. The plot involves the South Korean National Intelligence Service working with the CIA, so more Americans seem inevitable, but it’s a long time until Andrea Paciotto shows up for a terrible monologue. Paciotto’s real bad. But predictable.

Lee Mo-gae’s photography is quite good; again, the scenes where Gong’s introducing Park to the world are the best, not just for actors, but the lighting as well. The world from Park’s perspective has a lot of personality.

Given all the narrative constraints and contrivances, Seobok starts forecasting likely resolutions before the halfway point. But the ending’s worse than it needs to be. Lee goes for visually impressive bombastic instead of anything character motivated, which was where the film got its momentum.

Despite having little to do in the third act, Gong’s a great lead. It’s a movie star-type role, and he excels. Park’s successfully essays the film’s most challenging part. Jang’s pretty good; her performance suffers because she’s barely in the movie. Sidekick Park Byeong-eun’s in it slightly more, and he’s good. Ditto Jo. Most of Seobok’s acting is solid.

There’s just not much acting to do in the third act when the VFX take over. The end’s inevitable by the third act and obliviously so, which turns it into a race against time. Is the film going to make it to the finish before its charm runs out?

It makes it. Barely. And leveraging a lot of that earlier momentum. Then the postscript’s okay, with good Jo music making it all more palatable.

Thanks to Gong and Park and their buddy action road movie, Seobok’s got a lot of good moments. They add up to a mostly entertaining, occasionally too wanting, genre mishmash.

Leave a Reply