Streaming in the Philippines on the same day as its theatrical release in South Korea, “Seobok” brings together Gong Yoo and Park Bo Gum for the first time on screen for a philosophical tale about a dying human and an undying being. Billed as a sci-fi film, “Seobok” is actually a heartbreaking meditation on what it means to be human and what makes life worth living.
“Are you saying he’s a cloned human?” Gong Yoo’s character, a former intelligence agent named Ki Heon, asks one of the scientists. “I don’t know if we can call him human,” the scientist replies. “If potato roots sprout from a tomato plant, what should we call them?” Spoilers ahead.
Who wants to live forever?
I watched “Seobok” on the Philippine streaming site Vivamax, which I stumbled upon a few days ago on Twitter thanks to a tweet by Edwin Lacierda, who was the presidential spokesperson of former Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III. He had just subscribed to Vivamax, and when I checked out the site I happily discovered that it would stream “Seobok” starting April 15, so I signed up for Php149 a month.
Fans of South Korean films and TV dramas would be familiar with many of the themes tackled in this movie, including philosophical questions on the human condition and the relationships between parents and children. The titular character Seobok that Bo Gum plays challenges what it means to be human. Unlike early attempts at cloning, where you just replicate the original, Seobok, who is simply referred to by most of the characters by the dehumanizing term “specimen”, is the first human to be created through stem cell cloning and genetic manipulation.
The creation of Seobok has two unintended consequences. One, he is an undying being. This doesn’t mean he can’t be killed, if, for example, he gets into an accident, or is shot. And he also needs to be regularly injected with an inhibitor to prevent his cells from rapidly dividing. But otherwise, he won’t experience a natural death, and will live on forever.
Second, somehow all this genetic manipulation has given him stronger brainwaves that in practice acts as a very powerful form of telekinesis. We are talking superhero-level powers here, and so throughout the movie, you’re just waiting for him to inevitably go full-blown Carrie.
Which is why it’s quite the proverbial twist of fate that sees Ki Heon, a cynical and burned-out man who is dying of a brain tumor, developing an unlikely friendship with this undying being who is only a child in terms of biological age, and who has no real idea what it means to be human.
To be honest, this movie is at its best when it’s only Gong Yoo and Bo Gum on screen, as these two give incredible performances that make them live up to their billing as two of the finest actors of their respective generations. They’re both known for acting so naturally that it doesn’t feel as if they’re acting. You can truly empathize with both characters, and the pain, loss, and anger that both of them feel.
In particular, Bo Gum is utterly convincing playing the young boy he is supposed to be. It’s just uncanny how throughout his career, Bo Gum has completely transformed himself into the characters he plays. In “Seobok”, you can almost believe that this otherworldly and innocent creature he plays is truly a clone — a new being that is now experiencing the outside world for the first time and dealing with a flood of unfamiliar thoughts and emotions.
And, honestly, the scene of the two of them simply eating instant noodles shows just how great these two actors truly are.
What tomorrow brings
As more and more science fiction becomes science fact in our rapidly transforming world the philosophical questions and moral dilemmas tackled in “Seobok” are issues we should be resolving now, before all these things come to pass.
One of my favorite authors, Yuval Noah Harari, has discussed the future of humanity in his brilliant book “Homo Deus“. If we think digital transformation has been disruptive, then wait until bioengineering becomes the norm.
Hacking the internet is child’s play compared to hacking our bodies. We have been genetically modifying plants and animals since the dawn of civilization, and our minds and bodies have evolved thanks to the tools we have created and the inventions we have made. Only now, technology allows us to perform genetic manipulation with more precision and scale.
Would you be comfortable upgrading yourself? Is it ethical to create a clone of you that would supply you with donor organs — spare parts, if you will?
We have come to the point where we can technologically enhance our bodies and become transhumans. Coexist with artificial intelligence and robots, and perhaps even fall in love with them. Conquer aging, or even death. Just like the promise of immortality that turns into a curse in “Seobok”.
Asked by Seobok what it’s like to live, Ki Heon says: “There were good times and bad times… and definitely some shitty times. I’m confused now. I can’t tell if I want to live or if I’m just scared to die.”
In the end, that might perfectly describe what it means to be human.