Review: Although Yeon Sang-ho’s new movie JUNG_E is visually stunning and marvelous, its story runs noticeably shallow and cliché. A gut-wrenching performance by Kang Soo-youn attempts to save the day, but the final outcome is just muddy science fiction noise.
“JUNG_E” is the latest project from famed director and science fiction visionary Yeon Sang-ho. Yeon broke out in the mid-2010s with rocking genre entries like “Train to Busan,” which I finally checked out leading up to the release of this new movie. I generally liked “Train to Busan” for its ballsy approach to violence and chaotic action, although I thought it lacked some strong characters that would’ve helped put it over the edge.
But regardless, I saw potential in Yeon’s work and I can see why Netflix has called on him to helm some of their South Korean projects in recent years. His limited series “Hellbound” premiered on the service in 2021 and continued the hellish worldview that he’s been bringing to life project after project at this point. Yeon’s nihilistic views on the world and its inhabitants ring through on his best movies and series, and it’s a viewpoint that I’m interested to see if he develops further.
I can’t say that I’m an eager fan of his at this point, but I like to give him the benefit of a viewing whenever he has new material readily available. It’s also not like there’s much to see right now as production studios and streaming services seem content to throw away January as a movie-watching month anyways. This seems like Netflix’s biggest release of the month and there doesn’t seem to be much marketing for it anyways.
The movie stars Kang Soo-youn, who it’s notable to mention unfortunately passed away in May 2022 from a medical condition. This feels particularly eerie when watching “JUNG_E” as she plays an artificial intelligence engineer slowly succumbing to a cancer diagnosis that she’s had since she was a child. She’s also tasked with developing the next phase of AI weaponry sculpted after her war hero mother. The relationship between Seo-hyun (Kang Soo-youn) and Jung-yi (Kim Hyun-joo) serves as the emotional crux of this science fiction plot.
And the movie largely lives in this space age compound that doesn’t seem to offer much space for these characters to decompress. “JUNG_E” gradually begins to feel like a pressure cooker for everyone involved in the engineering process of this new class of fighters. As their tests fail over and over, each technician responsible for the work begins to get antsy and point fingers at one another. Lead scientist and dimwitted, demanding businessman Sang-hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo) leads the charge to better enhance the projects weapons and skills before it’s mass manufactured.
Needless to say, “JUNG_E” lives and dies by its sci-fi iconography that is sure to turn some viewers off. I occasionally found it to be emotionally investing and mining, but I also sometimes found it to be a noisy mess. I constantly thought of Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” as I watched “JUNG_E.” The movies seem to be in sync with one another as they compete to see which one feels more like a science fiction movie. The futuristic technology and mumbo jumbo that “JUNG_E” concerns itself with mostly rings hollow and lazy.
But the world that this movie takes place in is visually stunning. Each establishing shot is more beautiful than 90% of what Netflix puts out nowadays. There’s a strange dichotomy between being visual gob smacked and intellectually completely unmoved by the predictability of Yeon Sang-ho’s story here. I’m glad I watched “Train to Busan” to prepare for this because that film feels like Yeon is working to push every minute detail and idea of his into one film. “Train to Busan” can feel so overstuffed at points that it faulters because of it. “JUNG_E” feels completely void of the same handful of creative choices.
There isn’t much new to what Yeon Sang-ho is telling in “JUNG_E.” It feels like he’s going through the motions of telling a story that feels too linear and obsolete given the world that he’s working in. I found myself completely taken away by a few visual moments here, but not so much in terms of character and plot.
In a way, it almost feels perfect that “JUNG_E” lives on Netflix. It feels like a watered down version of an auteur and his singular vision. It’s not that the movie is necessarily bad – it’s just completely wrung out of interesting twists or unusual takes on common sci-fi themes. I guess I may just be rambling on about the same issue I have with this film over and over, and I’m not sure how many other times I can spin it. “JUNG_E” had potential, but it didn’t capitalize enough on the worldbuilding that I found to be the most inviting part of the meal.