Jung_E, Dir. Yeon Sang-ho, 2023, 98 mins, Netflix
I ended up writing a far too-lengthy post for Jung_E and while this edited version is still rather long I assure you that what you’re reading here is the abbreviated version. Sometimes its too easy to go on a long wild rant regards what is wrong with a film, and sometimes I have to wonder is it worth my time venting about bad films, or your time reading it? That’s if anyone really reads my rambling but hey, that’s by the by and not why I write it anyway, but editing never hurt anyone unless you’re Ridley Scott and your film is Kingdom of Heaven, so suffice to say this film is pretty poor, really, and a big disappointment with its “from the director of Train to Busan!” tagline.
Lets start with the good- Kim Hyun-joo, who plays titular protagonist Jung_E (as well as Captain Yun Jung-yi, which we’ll get to later) is really very good- an actress accomplished at the physical side of acting in the stunts and action sequences, but also very good at emoting in the character moments and giving the film a weight it doesn’t really deserve. If the film had just focused on her it would have been much better, but again, we’ll get into its lack of focus later. She really is great, and… well, the film looks pretty for a fairly low-budget sci-fi, costing less than an average episode of Westworld or House of the Dragon, apparently. The sets are limited but the CGI is largely quite effective.
As for why the film proves to be so bad, well…
Funnily enough, that all starts with the films very beginning, with a lengthy information-dump in text describing the state of the 22nd Century Earth that has been rendered inhabitable by climate change, with humanity living in huge orbital habitats threatened by a lengthy civil war, but in curiously all of that proves entirely incidental to the plot. We don’t see anything of those opposing forces or how the war is going, anything of those orbital habitats. The film would function just fine without being told about any of it, and once we get outside of the city later in the film, the natural world looks okay and rather surprisingly recovered (indeed, a curious reminder of the daft theatrical ending of Blade Runner back in 1982).
It is so nonsensical. This is one of those daft sci-fi flicks that aims for some kind of sophistication and falls far short; its really nowhere near as clever as it seems to think it is. Contrary to the apocalyptic state the world is apparently in, there seems to be an endless supply of power and resources available; there’s no starving millions for example, which increasingly suggests that the premise has been ill-thought out. We are led to believe the war has been going on for more than thirty years, which probably makes it a wonder anyone is still around at all.
As for the plot… well it is similarly ill thought-out, and woefully convoluted. Jung_E is a robot programmed with a cyber brain copying the intellect, memories and character of ‘star’ fighter Captain Yun Jung-yi who was killed in a battle thirty years prior and is now stored in a coma, from which her brain-patterns (or some such nonsense) are downloaded into the robot simulacra Jung_E. Jung_E thinks she is Captain Yun Jung-yi and thinks the battle happened yesterday, unaware that she is no longer human: repeatedly she is put into trial simulations reliving her last battle, found wanting when she dies in each one, and disposed of, replaced with another model and trialled again. The reasoning seems to be if she can beat this simulation of her last battle then she’s a winner and they can put her on the production line.
Where the film gets side-tracked is that it is Captain Yun Jung-yi’s daughter, Seoyhun (played by Kang Soo-yeon, who sadly passed away before this film was released), a child when Jung-yi died/was put into a coma, who is the (now-adult, thirty years have passed, remember) scientist who is in charge of the project to turn her mother into a production line of robot warriors. There’s all sorts of mother-daughter relationship hysterics, the daughter emotionally damaged, angry at her mother deserting her as a child, presumably guilty over what she is now doing, while the unaware mother still seems to think her daughter is a child back home and desperate to get back to her.
Its all very busy with coincidences and complications that add little to the plot. Just think for one moment though- had the scientist not been her daughter, and the film itself focused more upon Jung_E questioning her identity, humanity and purpose (essentially the very cyberpunk idea that her personality/memories/skills are reduced to just intellectual property owned by a military corporation), wouldn’t that have been a much better, tighter-focused film? The child daughter left behind at home thirty years ago could still have been an interesting twist, when Jung_E learned that thirty years had indeed passed and her daughter was orphaned and is now an adult.
But here perhaps I’m giving the narrative more thought and consideration than did the films director, Yeon Sang-ho; as well as directing this film he also wrote it, and it is clearly one of those ‘director’s vision’ projects that suggests most directors should steer clear of the actual writing (if only someone would tell James Cameron he can’t write dialogue).
The weird thing is, I can imagine this thing being remade by Hollywood with a much simpler plot and starring Charlize Theron or somebody. I’d suggest Scarlett Johansson, but she’s already starred in that movie, it was called Ghost in the Shell, and thats the biggest failure of Jung_E; its all been done before, and better.