Yeon Sang-ho got widespread acclaim with the 2011 animated film “The King of Pigs” and the 2013 film titled “The Fake.” But after the release of “Train to Busan,” the man essentially became a household name. Because he brought a fresh surge of energy and emotionality to the zombie horror sub-genre, especially at a time when something like that seemed impossible, it was not just on “best movies of the year” lists but also on a lot of people’s “best movies of all time” lists. So, that naturally came with a certain set of expectations. When they weren’t met in “Seoul Station,” “Psychokinesis,” and “Peninsula,” it seemed like everyone was ready to write him off. However, anyone who tuned into “Hellbound” knew that he hadn’t lost his touch. And “Jung_E” is proof of that because he made me cry three times with his beautiful blend of sci-fi action and mother-daughter drama.
Written and directed by Yeon Sang-ho, “Jung_E” takes place in a future where the rising sea levels caused by rapid climate change have made Earth inhabitable. So, humans have moved to space by building shelters between Earth and the Moon’s orbital planes, and people have been moved into its various sections. But somewhere down the line, a trio of those sectors labeled themselves as the Adrian Republic and launched a full-scale attack on Earth and the shelters. That forced humans to cope with two atrocities, one being the climate crisis and the other being this man-made war. However, in this process, the Allied Forces discovered a nearly unbeatable mercenary named Jung_E (Kim Hyun-joo) and decided to use her skills and abilities to replicate more soldiers like her. The ones in charge of making this combat AI are Team Leader Yoon Seo-hyun (the late Kang Soo-yeon) and Director Kim Sang-Hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo). And they are trying tooth and nail to get the project green-lit by running brutal training simulations on Jung_E.
I am going to be brazenly honest here: “Jung_E” is criminally deceptive. Going by trailers, I stupidly expected this to be a standard, high-on-action, science-fiction flick. Nothing more, nothing less. And then, Yeon Sang-ho body-slammed me with a sea of emotions by revealing that, in addition to being a high-octane actioner, it’s a pretty gut-wrenchingly intense mother-daughter drama. Because Jung_E isn’t just some legendary mercenary, she’s Yoon Seo-hyun’s mother, who basically sacrificed her body, soul, image, memories, and everything that makes her a person to a private arms manufacturing company to cure her daughter’s cancer. Since Yoon never got to say goodbye to her properly and has to live with the fact that her mother’s last memory is a failed mission, she wants to make this project a success so that Jung_E is respected again and she herself gets some form of closure. However, to get to that stage, Yoon has to watch her mother die again and again while her superiors treat Jung_E like an action figure. It’s devastating!
To make things even more heartbreaking, Yeon Sang-ho dives into the topics of classism, the lies that are peddled in the name of idolizing heroes, the state of soldiers who fight for us, the innate desire in humans to dehumanize everything that isn’t human, and the immorality that comes with technology and power. There’s a moment in “Jung_E” that is so painfully real because it says that even after a woman has accomplished the highest honor achievable, men will still find a way to degrade their legacy. The simple image of a toy of Jung_E becomes so loaded with subtext that it’ll probably become impossible to look at any figurine or currency or street that has been erected to “pay respect” to someone legendary. Yeon Sang-ho recontextualizes a practice that’s been going on for generations without any kind of protest because we’ve been told to think that commodifying the image of a person is a sign of reverence. It may be for some. However, the ones who are producing those facsimiles are in it for the money and the perversion that comes with it.
Coming to the action, it’s quite fantastic. Should we be witnessing this on our small screen because Netflix doesn’t want to release a big and bombastic film such as “Jung_E” on the big screen? No, absolutely not. Do we have an option? Also, no, absolutely not. But thanks to the work by Yeon Sang-ho, his action direction team, cinematographer Yoo Ji-sun, production designer Lee Mok-won, editor Yan Jinmo, VFX supervisor Jung Hwang-soo, SFX supervisor Park Kyoung-soo, the sound design teams, and all the amazing VFX and CGI artists, you are completely pulled into it. Yes, there are some janky moments. However, the positives outweigh the negatives by a mile. And when you are fighting against your tear ducts, which are on overdrive because of all the soul-crushing drama, then you begin to ignore any minor visual effects issues. Talking about visuals, “Jung_E” does feel like a brilliant successor to both “Blade Runner 2049” and “Edge of Tomorrow.” I know those two are nothing similar in terms of style. However, Yeon Sang-ho strikes this balance between poignant moments of self-reflection and kinetic, fiery, mech-laden action.
Kim Hyun-Joo, as the titular Jung_E, is great. For the most part, her role is limited to recreating her final mission. It’s a physically demanding role, and, with some help from her stunt double, she aces those action set-pieces. But when we get to the flashbacks, and she remembers her promise to her daughter, Kim allows us to actually process all the feelings we’ve been projecting on her due to her backstory. Ryu Kyung-soo is purposefully annoying and hilarious at the same time. However, after a certain revelation, you begin to both pity him and hope that his character is killed in the most brutal way possible. He could’ve treated Sang-Hoon as a typical, mustache-twirling, forgettable villain. Instead, he marinates in the layers of the character and delivers a memorable performance. That said, the star of the film is the late Kang Soo-yeon. Her quiet toleration of her personal and professional hurdles hits you in the feels. And as Yoon becomes more and more desperate, Kang’s emotional range expands until it’s overwhelming. It’s a brilliant final act and one that I’ll be championing all year.
There’s a possibility that since such a great film has been released so early in the year, by the time we reach the end, a lot of us are going to forget about it. I, for one, won’t let that happen. And the first step towards making that possible is by strongly urging you to watch “Jung_E.” It’s scarily close to the reality we live in, not just in terms of technological advancements but also in terms of ethical degradation. Governments, private organizations, social media platforms, etc., have turned living, breathing human beings into data points that can be used or discarded. Even though we say we have evolved, the value of human life is probably at its lowest because capitalism, the rise in economic divide, and rampant political oppression have reduced us to a minor statistic. And the idea of fighting all that can seem daunting. However, if we narrow it down to preserving the memory, legacy, and future of our loved ones, the fight can seem a little more doable. That’s what Yeon Sang-ho’s latest sci-fi drama is all about, and that is why it’s already one of the best movies of 2023.