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'Jung_E' on Netflix: A Beautifully Heartrending Sci-Fi Thriller

Review: Action and plenty of heart can be found in this South Korean sci-fi about artificially intelligent robots.

The top half of an android woman in a lab
Kim Hyun-joo stars in Jung_E.
Netflix/YouTube screenshot

A dash of class warfare and a heartrending parent-child connection brought a unique spin to 2016 zombie horror Train to Busan. Now South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho is turning his hand to a sci-fi thriller, setting Jung_E in a dystopian Earth marshaled by AI robots. In a similar vein to his zombie offering, Yeon is mainly focused on the human heart amid the action. This mother-daughter tale is driven by sacrifice, unanswered questions and the tragic price of survival.

That core preoccupation leads to an almost poetic -- and moving -- take on the creation of AI robots. As for any mind-blowing new ideas, Jung_E doesn't have much to add to the AI robot conversation. The rules and look of this dystopia are unmistakably influenced by Blade Runner. While entertaining, the fight scenes are rooted in generic-looking CGI and any ethics about artificial intelligence are surface level. Keeping the story moving forward is the clear priority.

It's a forgivable simplification, because that mother-daughter bond is Jung_E's greatest strength. In this desolate 22nd century world, scientists are trying to create the greatest AI combat robot to put an end to a decades-long civil war. Related is the cloning of human consciousness, which allows humans to live past their body's expiry date. But, as is the way, only the privileged can be uploaded into robots with human rights. There is a free tier that allows the less well off to preserve the blueprints of their brains, but it comes at the cost of giving permission to become a clone.

These scenarios are explored through two main characters. Kim Hyun-joo is Captain Yun Jung-yi, known as "the pride of Korea," an elite, famous soldier and an effortlessly likable hero. A supreme professional fighter, she drops a few sarcastic lines, without dampening an innate kind warmth.

Kang Soo-yeon, sadly in her final role before her death last year, plays the other main focus. Seo-hyun is the leader of a team of researchers trying to find the key to creating the AI combat robot. Kang's poised performance, made more restrained particularly across from Ryu Kyung-soo's comic relief lab director, has a magnetic draw. The glimmer of a tear in the corner of her eyes hints at a mysterious, painful past.

A soldier standing behind a pillar holding a gun

Kim Hyun-joo is a soldier in a dystopian Earth.

Netflix

Instead of branching out across the war-torn world, Jung_E's action is contained to the AI research lab. This isn't necessarily a weakness. The twists and character reveals are played out in a confined space, grinding the tensions until everything comes to an albeit slightly predictable climax. Hanging over everyone is the question of whether, unbeknownst to them, they're an android. In a clear -- but not as compelling -- Blade Runner-inspired scene, an ethics test supposedly puts those questions to bed.

Refreshingly, director Yeon, who also wrote the screenplay, finds a more benevolent angle to the robot soldiers premise. He doesn't attempt to untie the ethical knots of artificial intelligence, leaving that to the likes of Ex Machina. The fraught, violent, existential facets are still touched on, but the lens is narrowed on the mother-daughter relationship. It lands on someone's personal apology. The idea of a gift. The final impression of Jung_E is welcomingly less sinister.

Jung_E doesn't breathe new life into the android consciousness dilemma, but instead sets a gut-wrenchingly human story within that well-trodden battlefield. It's that beautifully woven thread, spun into an entertaining action thriller, that's well worth hanging onto.

Jung_E hits Netflix on Friday.