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JUNG_E

If the breakthrough hit “Train to Busan” was director Yeon Sang-ho’s successful stab at tropes set up by pioneers like George A. Romero, “Jung_E,” now on Netflix, is the filmmaker’s stab at “The Terminator,” “Blade Runner” and sci-fi action flicks with deep philosophical underpinnings about what it means to be human. The filmmaker behind “Hellbound” has lost none of his skill with set-pieces (and may have even improved in that department), but he can’t find a way to make the bloated, overlong center of his latest project work. As with “Busan,” his action filmmaking remains well above average, but that skill set isn’t activated enough as way too much of “Jung_E” is content to discuss its themes instead of merely embedding them in an interesting story. The opening action sequence of “Jung_E” shows off those genre chops, and the last 15 minutes are pretty wicked. You can find something else to distract you for almost everything in between.

“Jung_E” opens with a crawl that explains the setting is 2194. Of course, by then we have long ago made this planet inhabitable, creating man-made shelters to house the remaining factions of humanity. Naturally, these factions don’t all get along, and three have broken off and started a war between the remaining sectors of humanity, a battle that was once led by an incredible soldier named Yun Jung-yi (Kim Hyun-joo). In this vision of the future, consciousness can be downloaded into A.I., and that’s exactly what a team of experts are trying to do with Yun, turning her expertise into a killing machine named Jung_E. However, they keep failing in their efforts as they attempt to virtually recreate the day that Yun died in combat, hoping that if they can map her brain in a way to get past that fateful event that she’ll be even more unstoppable and win the war.

Leading the project is an expert named Seohyun (the sadly deceased Kang Soo-yeon, to whom the film is dedicated), who happens to be the daughter of Yun, who has been in a coma for 35 years. While Seohyun has a very personal connection to the project—in a sense she’s trying to save not only her mother’s consciousness but to overcome that which killed her—she’s balanced by the more aloof and cynical Sang-Hoon (the entertaining Ryu Kyung-soo of "Hellbound"), who sees the project in more clinical terms, and is worried more about the government shutting it down than any moral boundaries being pushed.

After an opening sequence that sets the table for Jung_E’s fighting ability, Yeon settles into scene after scene of Sang-Hoon and Seohyun discussing how the project is going and how to fix it. Yeon plays with some interesting ethical ideas—there’s a good scene wherein it’s revealed that economic inequity comes into play in this vision of the future even after you die. (The poorest people won’t have any control over their consciousness.) But “Jung_E” just gets far too talky, spinning its wheels in a way that lacks the emotional and philosophical heft a film like this needs to be so confined to research chambers for so long.

When the film explodes into a few action sequences, including an excellent one on a speeding train (of course) in the climax, it makes one wish that they had been spread out through the film instead of so many repeated conversations. In the end, “Jung_E” feels like a movie made by an undeniably talented director who just didn’t have quite enough ideas here even to fill a 99-minute runtime. It’s a start of a movie or maybe the first episode of a TV show more than a satisfying project on its own terms. To that end, it does set up a vision of the future that could support richer, more ambitious storytelling in a sequel. Maybe that one could have some zombies in it. 

On Netflix today.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

JUNG_E movie poster

JUNG_E (2023)

Rated R

98 minutes

Cast

Kim Hyun-joo as Yoon Jung-e

Kang Soo-youn as Yoon Seo-hyun

Ryu Kyung-soo as Kim Sang-hoon

Park So-yi

Director

Writer

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