JUNG_E is the latest film written and directed by Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho. Here the famed South Korean director tries his hand at dystopian science fiction to arguably good success. Its influences are obvious, to the point that some may feel like it is derivative. And that’s perfectly fine. I’ve seen many movies recently that were derivative of previous works but were pretty good nonetheless. This is somewhat common nowadays especially in science fiction, and in dystopian and cyberpunk science fiction in particular.

Blade Runner is the obvious big influence here. And one might be inclined to note similarities to franchises like The Terminator and Robocop. But I also see elements of some pretty famous anime and manga, the most obvious being Ghost in the Shell. There are also plenty of elements of Gundam, Alita, and Appleseed, among others. In fact the similarities are so bold that I feel like the inclusion of them is likely intentional and in homage to all those classic dystopian and cyberpunk franchises.

Yun Seo-hyun (portrayed by Kang Soo-yeon)

Whatever the case, I feel like JUNG_E was made out of a massive love for the properties and franchises that came before it. And as an homage it definitely succeeds. It looks the part with it’s beautiful cinematography and dazzling special effects. But how is it as cyberpunkery? That’s why we’re here discussing it after all.

The film takes place sometime in the 22nd century. Sea levels have risen catastrophically high due to climate change, which has caused Earth to become uninhabitable. Consequently most of humanity settles off-world and lives across a number of space colonies. This leads to several colonies banding together and declaring themselves as independent from the rest of humanity. War erupts between the breakaway colonies and the remaining ones. Of course.

Humanity has nearly perfected a process to copy a human being’s brain into an artificial brain which is then implanted into an android body. This is apparently big business in this world. There are three payment tiers if people want their brains copied into new bodies.

The first tier is “Class A.” This is astronomically expensive and clearly most people can’t afford it however those in this tier are completely free and treated like any other person after they are copied. There is also a “Class B” tier which is still prohibitively expensive but cheaper than Class A. The drawback is that people who are copied in this tier do not enjoy as much freedom afterward as those who were able to afford the Class A.

And then there is the “Class C” tier. This one’s free. Though while it doesn’t cost anything, by choosing this tier, people are agreeing to allow an obviously very sketchy corporate entity to copy them infinitely and use them however they like. They can be sold to corporations or to rich upper class citizens to be used as slave labor. Or they can be used as military soldiers to fight in the seemingly endless war.

The film follows one such military soldier, Yun Jung-yi (portrayed by Kim Hyun-joo), a famous and highly respected war hero who becomes a paid mercenary in order to pay for life-saving surgery for her daughter Yun Seo-hyun (portrayed by Kang Soo-yeon). However she is overcome and nearly killed in a battle that puts her in a comatose state for years with no chance of recovery. Her family, too impoverished to afford a higher tier, signs off to copy her as a “Class C.”

Yun Jung-yi/JUNG_E (portrayed by Kim Hyun-joo)

Yun Seo-hyun later becomes one of the leading AI researchers working for the laboratory in charge of making the copies of her mother (now named JUNG_E). The goal of this laboratory is to perfect the combat of JUNG_E copies by finding out how and why she was defeated in that last battle and find a way to circumvent it. Presumably to create an army of super soldiers based on her.

They do this by creating endless copies of her and running them through realistic simulations of the fateful battle that nearly killed her. Each time a copy fails, it is terminated and they try again by changing various factors. Here’s where the film’s plot runs into a major ethical problem.

In JUNG_E when people’s brains are copied into the new bodies, they have all of the memories, life experiences, and emotions of the person they were copied from. And in fact it seems like many don’t even know they are androids at all. They can even feel an approximation of physical pain when their body is damaged. Essentially there is no difference between the AI copies and real flesh and blood humans aside from what they are made of physically. They are like the replicants of Blade Runner, just robotic instead of organic.

So to be bought and sold as slave labor or, as in cases like Yun Jung-yi/JUNG_E, subjected to relentless torture, is a huge ethical dilemma. And it happens seemingly unchecked and unregulated by any government agency. And that fact is unfortunately never really called into question in this film, which was a bit of a disappointment.

One of the few glimpses we see of the world outside the AI lab. I wanted to see more of this place!

Yun Seo-hyun, while not exactly thrilled to participate in her mother’s repeated physical and emotional torture, nevertheless does for some reason that I’m not clear on. However she does reach a turning point when it is revealed that the war is ending due to a peace agreement being reached with the breakaway colonies with whom they have been at war for decades.

The research project, now having no need for an army of robot soldier Moms, is directed to change focus away from combat models of JUNG_E for military contracts and toward marketing them for commercial, non-military purposes such as sexual slavery.

It is this, and not the repeated torture and death of her mother, that inspires Yun Seo-hyun to take actions against the company she works for and liberate her (and all her copies). And I get it. It’s a step too far. And it’s her Mom. She doesn’t want to see her used as a sex slave for fanboys who grew up playing with action figures based on her (yes this literally happens in the film) or for whatever other frivolous purpose purchasers have in mind for her.

It’s just a little frustrating at times that all the big moral questions are right there but JUNG_E never quite brings itself to ask them.

But in spite of this, I really enjoyed JUNG_E. It was beautifully shot, featured some bangin’ special effects, some interesting world building, and great acting from the cast all around. I would Like to have seen more of the outside world to find out what kind of place it is where people would purchase a self-aware, conscious androids for frivolous slave labor. Most of the film takes place in the AI laboratory with only a couple of scenes taking place outside.

And most of all I found the relationship between Yun Seo-hyun and Yun Jung-yi/JUNG_E touching. And that’s really what this movie was all about. So it didn’t really need to ask the big questions. Sometimes peoples’ motivations are in the smaller, more personal details rather than the grand. And that’s probably something most of us can relate to.

JUNG_E is currently streaming on Netflix.

A gaming replicant writing about games and replicants. Lover of coffee, cyberpunk, video games, techno, and old electronic music. Non-binary and neurodivergent.

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