We live in an era of cinema where post-apocalyptic stories have become (even more) common. Whether it’s an attempt to create a ‘realistic’ narrative or the most imaginative sci-fi piece possible, this particular sub-genre has long lost its surprise factor, and it’s quite rare to find films or TV series that stand out for doing something truly unique. Yeon Sang-ho achieved such a feat in conceiving Train to Busan—often acclaimed as one of, if not the best zombie apocalypse flick ever made.
Therefore, expectations were high for JUNG_E, the filmmaker’s latest dive into this particular area. This time, Sang-ho veers more towards sci-fi and places the characters in a futuristic world where orbital shelters between the Earth and the Moon, battle robots, and highly advanced AI are part of everyday life. Unfortunately, the initial exposition of all this is too repetitive and ultimately unnecessary—one character even states, ‘we already know this, can’t we skip it?’—and fails to immerse the viewer into this new world.
In fact, if it weren’t for Sang-ho’s name being associated with this project, I don’t know if the premise would be sufficient to capture the public’s attention due to its formulaic simplicity. Planet ceased to be habitable due to climate change? Humans forced to go into space? War between different entities arises due to economic, political, and social problems? One can mention hundreds of films with these narrative plot points. So, what does JUNG_E have to offer that’s different from these endless variations?
The typical moviegoer can easily hops onto Netflix and start watching this film with the hope for pure visual entertainment driven by countless action sequences. Unfortunately, those expectations are miles away from what actually happens. Simply put, JUNG_E is a war film without the war. There are intense action moments complete with impressive and dedicated stunt work from a South Korean team; however, the main story focuses on a slow, profound study of what it means to be human, with a moving mother-daughter relationship at its core.
Despite generic character development, the past of daughter Seo-hyun—portrayed by Kang Soo-yeon in her last role before her untimely death—is efficiently explored, connecting plot points in the present that gain more prominence over time. Several moral dilemmas increase the tension in a screenplay marked by many thought-provoking scenes of dialogue about how certain behaviours, mentalities, and ways of living will remain unchanged, regardless of the global scenario. Too bad Sang-ho can’t seem to go beyond the surface with these topics, which are all ripe for exploration.
Kim Hyun-joo plays Jung_E, an A.I. assembled through brain cloning and based on a legendary military leader with phenomenal combat skills. I’m not sure if the actress was involved in most of the stunts, but from the long takes and extensive choreography, it seems clear that Hyun-joo adds a physical component to her performance that makes her stand out from the rest of the cast. A cast that, overall, delivers over-the-top performances, forcing expressions and emotions that damage a potentially more significant emotional connection with the characters—although no actor could have made Sang-Hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo), the head of the respective AI development department, any less annoying.
On the more technical side, the score deserves immense praise. It brings an epic atmosphere to JUNG_E, especially in the third act, where the action gets more—maybe a tad too much—screen time. The production design is impeccable, though the visual effects are pretty inconsistent. There are stunning visuals to be had here but certain CGI elements feel incomplete, distracting the viewer from the already sparse action. The final sequence has its moments, but the heavy reliance on VFX removes some of its entertainment value.
During the last act, Sang-ho does make a creative decisions that thematically and narratively fits like a glove but which, in practice, also creates a visual issue. On one hand, I understand and appreciate the filmmaker’s intention to unmistakably convey his essential message that our appearance or origins shouldn’t decide whether or not we should be considered and treated as human beings. On the other hand, it removes much of the connection viewers had with a particular character, negatively impacting a climax that had a much, much bigger potential.
JUNG_E is not what viewers expect. A war flick without the war, Yeon Sang-ho places the post-apocalyptic action in the background and instead focuses on a compelling study of what it means to be human. Despite some frustratingly over-the-top performances and one intolerably irritating character, the filmmaker’s message is well-intended, clear, and meaningful. And though unnecessary exposition and inconsistent visual effects fail to help elevate the premise itself, impressive stunt work, an epic score, and some genuinely captivating combat sequences make it an overall satisfying viewing.
JUNG_E is now streaming on Netflix.