With 2016’s Train to Busan, director Yeon Sang-ho managed to do something surprising: offer a fresh take on a zombie story, one of the most well-trod genres around. Now, he’s tackling yet another oversaturated space with Jung_E, a sci-fi tale about how humanity will adapt to living alongside AI. The new film introduces some fascinating ideas about class and technology, along with some very fun action sequences. But it manages to stand out mostly thanks to its extremely personal take on our AI future.
The movie is also notable for being the final on-screen performance from Kang Soo-yeon, a Korean star who died suddenly last May. Jung_E represents not only her last role but also a return to the screen after nearly a decade away.
Jung_E takes place in a very bleak vision of the future. Due to extreme climate change, most of humanity has migrated to shelters in space, but eventually — as humans tend to do — they split into two factions that have become locked in a civil war. The few people still remaining on Earth spend their time building weapons for the warring countries in space, turning the planet into an industrial slum.
The story is told primarily from the point of view of Soo-yeon’s character, a researcher named Yun Seo-hyun who is obsessed with creating an AI soldier so perfect it could end the seemingly endless war. The twist is that her project is based on a real person: her own mother, Yun Jung-yi (Kim Hyun-joo), a celebrated war hero who has been in a coma for the last 35 years. As part of the testing process, Seo-hyun keeps trying to force an AI built using her mother’s mind and memories to survive her final mission — the one that put her in a comatose state in the first place — believing that success will mean a machine that’s better than a human in battle.
The most interesting thing about Jung_E’s vision of the future is how it embeds AI into everyday life, creating a unique kind of class system. What happens to your mind after you die depends entirely on how much money you have. The rich can essentially live forever, placing their minds in synthetic bodies with all of the rights of a flesh-and-blood human. They can still get married or own property. One step down, the middle class can also live on, but the cheaper price tag means fewer rights and consenting to share brain data with the government for research. Can’t afford either? Well, there’s a free option, but it means your brain is essentially up for sale to anyone who wants the data.
This is what happened to Jung-yi and why the famed mercenary is now essentially a tool for a weapons company building a new product using her mind and likeness. Certain scenes almost feel like horror, like when the AI version of Jung-yi wakes in an incomplete body, screaming about her missing limbs. She has no idea what’s going on and wouldn’t have any say anyway.
By the end, though, all of that fascinating worldbuilding largely takes a back seat to the family story at the movie’s core. After all, it’s about a woman trying to connect with her mother through technology in the strangest way possible. Every day, Seo-hyun clocks into work and watches a recreation of her mom fail the same mission over and over, and afterward, she tries to interview her terrified shell. It’s heartbreaking. Eventually, there’s a possibility of the project being taken away from her, and her sense of loss is palpable. The beginning of the film is Seo-hyun finding any way to connect with her mother; the end is a tense race to save her from a terrible fate.
There is a lot about Jung_E that can feel familiar. There are shades of Blade Runner, as it’s not always clear who is a human and who is an AI. (There’s even an interview, called an “ethics test,” meant to filter out the synthetic minds.) The rough and grounded sci-fi visuals call to mind everything from Gears of War to RoboCop, with some milky robo-blood from Alien thrown in for good measure. I also can’t look at the limbless robot shells without thinking of the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact. And the sporadic action feels like typical space marine stuff until some very entertaining AI-on-AI combat toward the end.
But it’s easy to forget all of that when you’re caught up in Seo-hyun and Jung-yi’s tragic story, which, even from the beginning, seems doomed. Jung_E takes its time building out the relationship, using its sci-fi premise to add a few interesting twists and surprises that make it hit even harder. The movie doesn’t quite reach the heights of Train to Busan, but it does show that Sang-ho is a director who continues to find new angles and ideas even in the most crowded spaces.
Jung_E starts streaming on Netflix on January 20th.