South Korea, 2021, 114’, Korean
Directed by: Lee Yong Zoo
Script: Lee Yong Zoo, Yeom Gyu-hoon, Lee Jae-min, Jo Min-seok
Photography (color): Lee Mo-gae
Editing: Kim Sang-beom
Art Direction: Lee Ha-jun
Music: Jo Young-wook
Producers: Kim Kyung-min, Seo Young-hee, Song Seung-min, Park Ji-young
Cast: Gong Yoo (Gi-heon), Park Bo-gum (Seobok), Jo Woo-jin (KCIA Chief Ahn), Jang Young-nam (Dr. Im), Park Byung-eun (Shin Hak-seon)
Date of First Release in Territory: April 15th, 2021
Seo Bok is the Korean name of Xu Fu, an alchemist and court sorcerer of the Qin dynasty who, according to ancient texts, was sent off by the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, afraid of death, in search of the elixir of immortality. This is why in Lee Yong-joo’s Seobok, the name Seobok was given to the artificial immortal man in the film. The dual concept the film revolves around is precisely that: immortality and the fear of dying – which, as the director says, “is simply our fate.”
The two protagonists stand, one could say, on either side of the threshold of death. Gi-heon (Gong Yoo) is a former secret agent, terminally ill with a brain tumour, and tormented by feelings of guilt over a past episode involving a colleague in which he behaved like a coward (the unreal lighting, here all blue and orange, by cinematographer Lee Mo-gae is very beautiful). The knowledge that he will soon die, added to the pain his illness causes him, is his curse. Seobok (Park Bo-gum) was created from a secret experiment in genetic engineering: an artificial creature with the appearance of a boy, created in a laboratory through cloning. He is immortal and his stem cells, which are different from human ones, can cure any disease. “Through him,” gloats a scientist in the lab, “humans can vanquish death.” What’s more, Seobok has extraordinary telekinetic powers.
After Dr. Anderson, the head of the experiment, is assassinated, Seobok must be moved to a safer location away from the huge laboratory where he has spent his entire life. Gi-heon is assigned by his former boss to escort Seobok during the relocation. It should be a hassle-free mission, but during the journey the convoy is attacked. Gi-heon and Seobok end up on the run together, hunted down by assassins.
While Gi-heon just wants to wrap up his mission quickly, Seobok wanders around in awe of everything. He grew up in a single room (an obvious metaphor of that is the caged bird we see in Anderson’s study before his demise), and for him everything is a discovery, first and foremost the bizarre creatures that are human beings. Above all, one question plays on his mind: what does it mean to die? For this immortal creature, who never sleeps, our transience is incomprehensible.
Although there is no shortage of action scenes (exploding into a final apocalypse thanks to Seobok’s powers), Seobok is fundamentally an example of humanistic science fiction, making no attempt to conceal its philosophical-poetic intentions; for fans of classic science fiction literature it will bring to mind the names of Theodore Sturgeon and Clifford D. Simak. It may seem a little too verbose at times, but this pomp and circumstance is the very heart of the film – which nonetheless maintains a tense atmosphere at all times, combining spy-caper, with its typical double-crossing, science-fiction adventure and moral reflection.
At the film’s core is the well-delineated character of Seobok, in no small part thanks to Park Bo-gum’s excellent performance: a poignant creature straddling the line between the humanity that only Gi-heon (as well as a woman doctor) recognises and the non-humanity inscribed in his genes and reiterated by the other characters. As the film progresses, they refer to Seobok with dehumanising nouns (“the specimen,” “the project”); while Gi-heon’s perilous journey with Seobok gives rise to a mutual recognition. Ultimately, Seobok revives on the big screen, in a hyper-technological declination, the myth of Frankenstein with its tangled web of suggestions and questions: the irremediable otherness of artificial man, the torment of his exclusion from human society, the incomprehensibility of a phenomenon as foreign to his nature as death.
At the heart of both horror and all “weird science” films about the creation of life à la Frankenstein, there is always melodrama, and this element really comes into its own in the final part of Seobok.
Lee Yong Zoo
Lee Yong Zoo majored in architecture at Yonsei University and spent four years at an architectural firm until the Asian financial crisis of 1997 hit. At that time he shot a short film, and the experience led him to change his career. He made his debut in December 2009 with the horror film Possessed, which screened at the FEFF and won a Blue Dragon Award for Best Screenplay in Korea. Lee’s second film, Architecture 101, set a new record as Korea’s highest grossing romance to date. Seobok is his third feature film.
2009 – Possessed
2012 – Architecture 101
2021 – Seobok