Seobok: Project Clone


Ki Heon REALLY takes exception to being asked to wear a mask.

(2021) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Park Bo-Gum, Gong Yoo, Jang Young-Nam, Woo-jin Jo, Byeong-eun Park, Maurice Turner Jr., Kwang-hoon Na, Mi-nam Jung, Eon-jeong Lee, Yang Hee-Woo, Andreas Fronk, Daniel Joey Albright, Han-ji Hyun, Leraldo Anzaldua, Edward Hong, Rebecca Jensen Uesugi, Shogo Miyakita, Erin Nicole Lundquist. Directed by Lee Yong-ju

 

=As our medical technology improves, we begin to approach areas of moral dilemmas that we might never have envisioned even a few years ago. Research on stem cells and human cloning promise breakthroughs in the not-so-distant future, but what will be the cost for developing these lines of science and medicine?

Ki Heon (Yoo) is a former secret service agent for South Korea who has been afflicted with a terminal brain tumor, hence the “former.” He is beset by guilt regarding some shady deeds in his past (which are never fully explored). And yet, his old boss Chief Ahn (Jo) calls to give him one last mission; to escort valuable research from a human cloning experiment to a safer place following the assassination of the American scientist who was involved in it.

Needing to feel useful again, Ki agrees and is surprised to discover that the research he’s escorting is actually a young man named Seobok (Bo-Gum) who is a successful, genetically engineered clone, but there’s more to him than meets the eye; his body manufactures stem cells that can cure any disease, which could render the human race virtually immortal. In addition, Seobok has developed astounding powers of telekinesis, as well as the ability to generate force waves from his body.

They don’t get very far before they are attacked by a group of mercenaries, working for a group that wants control of the clone for themselves. The two fight off the killers, and go on the run, trying to avoid various would-be kidnappers and killers while slowly beginning to develop a grudging bond. For Seobok who has lived his entire life in a lab, the road trip is nothing short of miraculous, whereas Ki realizes that the young man he is transporting holds the key to his own personal survival – assuming they don’t get shot to pieces first.

The filmmakers spend a great deal of time focusing on the moral dilemmas of this kind of scientific research, and there are some truly thought-provoking points brought up. There is an intelligence here that is sometimes hard to find in sci-fi films, especially those that have actions sequences, which this one does, although not so many as you might think. However, when there is action, it is done competently well. The special effects are also pretty nifty.

Yoo, one of Korea’s biggest stars, is best-known to American audiences for his work in Train to Busan. He does some stellar work here, giving Ki layers upon layers; when we first meet him, Ki is wallowing in self-pity and something of a jerk. As we get to know him better through Seobok, we begin to see the pain that has caused him to put up those walls, and understand him a little better as a man. It’s not Oscar-level work, but considering this is essentially meant to be a genre film, it is surprisingly strong.

As I mentioned earlier, there aren’t a lot of action sequences here and for the most part, the movie goes pretty slowly, focusing on the ethical questions. For cerebral science fiction fans, that might well be candy, but for those looking for a space opera-like hoot, they will find it to be a Sour Patch Kid of a film. For what it is, however, it is better than we have any right to expect and for those who like their science fiction to be truly speculative, this is one worth seeking out.

Just a quick note; the film is available both in dubbed and subtitled versions. Not every streaming service carries it in both formats, so be sure you know what you’re getting when you order. The DVD/Blu-Ray edition does contain both versions, so if you still go the physical media route, that might be your best bet.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly thoughtful for a genre film. Strong performances throughout, particularly by Yoo.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow-paced and heavy on the exposition.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was originally set to be an end-of-the-year tentpole release in 2020 for its Korean distributor, but the pandemic delayed release until April 2021, when it debuted simultaneously in theaters and on the Korean streaming service TVING.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Plus, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Slut in a Good Way

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)


Beauty is only skin deep.

Beauty is only skin deep.

(2011) Thriller (Sony Classics) Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet, Roberto Alamo, Eduard Fernandez, Jose Luis Gomez, Bianca Suarez, Susi Sanchez, Barbara Lennie, Fernando Cayo, Chema Ruiz, Concha Buika, Ana Mena, Teresa Manresa, Fernando Iglesias, Agustin Almodovar, Miguel Almodovar, Marta R. Mahou, Carmen Machi. Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is something of an acquired taste. He has directed zany comedies and taut thrillers but none of his movies really fit into any neat little boxes. His movies tend to push boundaries, whether of things that are considered socially acceptable or of cinematic convention. You may not necessarily like all of his films but they will make an impression.

Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas) is a brilliant surgeon and medical researcher who is on the cusp of an amazing discovery – artificial skin that is flame retardant. His own wife had perished from injuries suffered in a fiery car crash so he has a personal stake in making this breakthrough. When he presents his results at a medical symposium it appears he may well be on his way to a Nobel Prize if things go the way that he hopes.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the good doctor has been performing illegal transgenetic experiments on humans. He is forbidden from continuing any further research on the subject. Of course, that’s not going to stop Dr. Ledgard, who on his secluded estate has been keeping a woman named Vera (Anaya). He has been grafting the artificial skin onto her body and he has gone too far to stop now. Through his loyal maid Marilla (Paredes) he dismisses the other servants and starts to step up testing on the skin.

Unfortunately, it’s about this time that Marilla’s criminal son Zeca (Alamo) turns up while Robert’s away and spies Vera on a closed circuit TV monitor and demands to see her in the flesh. When his mother refuses, he ties her up and rapes Vera, which clearly doesn’t sit well with Robert. These events will lead to an unveiling of secrets, including who Vera is and how she came to be the mad doctor’s captive.

Almodovar based this loosely on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet although he used a bundle of different influences as well, from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast to a number of literary sources which are listed during the end credit acknowledgements. There are a lot of different themes going on here, from medical hubris to personal obsession to the masks we adopt. Then again, Almodovar generally tends to deliver very layered films with themes that often invite controversy or at the very least post-screening discussion.

Banderas was an early Almodovar discovery in such films as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! although he hadn’t worked with the Spanish director in 21 years. Here he is at his best as the creepy, arrogant and psychotic scientist.  Dr. Ledgard believes he is doing good work, although not necessarily for humanity but certainly for his own needs. He is haunted by his dead wife and is literally trying to recreate her from the skin down. Vera is merely the conduit for his mad obsession. He becomes a kind of Dr. Frankenstein but in a modern medical sense. Almodovar handles that aspect rather clinically.

Like most of Almodovar’s films, the appeal isn’t going to be universal. Some will see this movie as way too strange and way too twisted for their own sensibilities and I can certainly understand that; there were times in the movie that I was a little uncomfortable myself and I tend to think of myself as pretty open-minded, cinematically speaking.

The movie’s ending isn’t going to brighten anybody’s day. Still, this is a really good movie for people who love to discuss the nuances of a film with friends afterwards. This is not only an intellectual exercise but an emotional one as well, with some visceral elements. The Skin I Live In isn’t the best of Almodovar’s films nor is it even his most squirm-inducing but it is the closest thing to a true horror film as he is ever likely to get.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting, twisted modern update of Frankenstein. Banderas at his creepy best.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too twisted for some. Kind of dreary ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very strong violence including a sexual assault, graphic nudity and sexuality, some drug use, disturbing images and rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the books acknowledged in the end credits as inspirational material (copies of which appear in the bedrooms of Dr. Ledgard and Vera respectively) are The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Angel at My Table by Janet Frame.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains footage from the New York premiere and an interview with the director conducted before a live audience.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.8M on a $13.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Without a Face
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Annabelle

The Raid: Redemption (Serbuan maut)


The Raid: Redemption

Never tell a martial arts expert to clean up his room or else.

(2011) Action (Sony Classics) Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Doni Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian, Pierre Gruno, Ray Sahetapy, Tegar Satrya, Iang Darmawan, Eka “Piranha” Rahmadia, Verdi Solaiman, R. Iman Aji, Ananda George, Yusuf Opilius. Directed by Gareth Evans

 

Hollywood was once the action movie capital of the world, as heroes like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Seagal and Willis unleashed mayhem of every shape and size against villains both human and extraterrestrial. But as our action heroes got older, their movies soon came out of vogue and the paradigm shifted.

Hong Kong was for a time the action center of the universe as Jacky Chan, Jet Li, Donny Yuen and Chow Yun Fat kicked butt in both police procedurals and fantasy martial arts extravaganzas. Again most of those actors have begun to age their way out of favor and now the paradigm is shifting once again.

Southeast Asia seems to be the new center of action movies as Thai star Tony Jaa has transfixed audiences with his astonishing martial arts films and now here comes this Indonesian entry into the sweepstakes that is meant to up the ante.

Rookie cop Rama (Uwais) leaves his pregnant wife to go on a dangerous assignment; to enter an apartment building and arrest the crime lord Tama (Sahetapy) who lives in a bunker-like enclosure on the top floor of the 15 story building. Most of the people living in it are beholden to Tama so it isn’t lie they can stroll in, arrest him and stroll out. They need to move in stealthily, as team leader Jaka (Taslim) explains. They are accompanied by a higher-up Lieutenant Wayhu (Gruno) who seems shady from the beginning.

Unfortunately for the cops, there is no stealth in a building that is wired with closed circuit cameras and microphones. Tama knows they are there long before there’s any chance for escape; he wipes out the men left behind to guard their van and traps the men on the sixth floor, sending his two right hands Andi the brains (Alamsyah) and Mad Dog the brawn (Ruhian) to finish them off. The cops will have to fight their way out of a death trap and it becomes not so much about getting their man and more about survival.

This is a movie all about choreography and pacing, and it’s done as intricately as any dance number. It’s kind of like a nearly two hour video game session without the controllers as cannon fodder on both side run out with machetes, guns or their fists to take on the heroic cops. Yes, it gets frustrating as you see gangs of fighters go in one at a time to take on the obviously better trained cops with predictable results but then again, that’s just fair play is it not?

Uwais is an action star in the making. He is handsome, charismatic and skilled, all attributes necessary for action star-ness. He doesn’t get a lot of dialogue here – nobody does – but he seems to be able to handle it pretty well. He is certainly one to keep an eye on.

Evans is a Welsh director who lives in Indonesia now and this is his baby. He knows what to do with it as well, giving it a lightning-paced edit that perfectly displays the kinetic fight sequences to their fullest, and gets a pulsing electronic score that further plays up the videogame angle.

This isn’t for everybody. Roger Ebert rightly opines that there isn’t much in the way of plot or character development and that the characters are essentially faceless, mindless and motiveless; we don’t care much for them so it doesn’t matter when they get slaughtered and after two hours of watching skulls getting bashed into walls, machetes slicing and dicing through bloody torsos and skulls exploding when a handgun is fired directly into them, well one can get desensitized. I do find that a little troubling.

However, I have to also admire the way this is put together and say that if you love action, this is really going to float your boat. It’s non-stop, pull no punches balls to the wall thrills and unapologetically so. There is in fact an audience for this kind of thing (which Hollywood has noted – a remake is in the pipeline) and they deserve to be served as much as the pre-teen girls who are served by the Twilight movies or the film buffs served by indie movies. I found myself pulled in and enjoying this on a visceral level and although I wouldn’t have minded a little more exposition and yes, a little less action, there was still enough of the former to justify the excess of the latter.

REASONS TO GO: Non-stop action. Paced so quickly you are literally left breathless.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacking in plot or character development; if you aren’t into one long fight scene this may not be your cup of tea.

FAMILY VALUES: Tons and tons of violence, some blood and gore and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before becoming an actor Uwais drove a truck.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are universally praiseworthy.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13

TACTICS LOVERS: The weapons and tactics used by the actors playing the special forces team are authentic to the ones used by Indonesia’s KOPASKA, down to the hand signals used  and the actors underwent training with KOPASA to use them properly.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:Chimpanzee