Like the mutant offspring of Short Circuit and Robot & Frank, Lee Ho-Jae’s Sori: Voice From the Heart is that peculiarly engaging and engagingly peculiar genre mash-up with a semi-tragic undercurrent the Korean industry does so well. Chronicling the odd bond between the grieving father of a murdered child and the sentient AI-loaded communications satellite he finds washed up on a beach on their mutual quests to find “her,” Sori hangs a very conventional story on a goofy structure but somehow manages to pull it off thanks to a pair of strong central performances and a premise so ridiculous it can be forgiven its trespasses.
When it was released in Korea at the end of January, the film got trounced at the box office by Kung Fu Panda 3. Not surprising, considering Sori may look like a heartwarming family, sci-fi drama on the surface but is, in reality, a sensitive, mostly successful meditation on grief and reconciling the people we think we know with who they really are. Though nearly indefinable, Sori’s brand of bittersweet acceptance of loss — without being an outright weepie — could receive a warm reception regionally and also find a place on Asia-focused festivals globally.
Sori starts with a flashback to 1990, with customs worker Hae-Kwan (The Attorney‘s Lee Sung-Min) and his wife frantically looking for their missing, clearly stubborn daughter Yoo-Ju. All ends well with father and daughter making a pact stating that should this happen again, they’d find each other at their favorite ice cream shop. Yoo-Ju goes missing again in 2003, this time tragically presumed dead in the disastrous fire (by arson) that ripped through the Daegu subway. Presumed dead by everyone, that is, except her father, who is unable to give up on the idea she may still be alive.
Before that however, Sori details a satellite, S19, falling from orbit (and miraculously surviving re-entry, seemingly bare) and quickly getting hunted by both (hilariously stiff) American NSA types, its NASA creator and their South Korean intelligence and scientific counterparts: Agent Shin (Lee Hee-Jun) and engineer Ji-Yun (Lee Honey). The threads come together when the government discovers Hae-Kwan has the tech (a cutesier R2D2, if that’s possible) he’s dubbed Sori (voiced by Miss Granny’s Shim Eun-Kyoung), and Ji-Yun acts on her empathy with Hae-Kwan’s plight. With help from Sori’s voice tracking software, Hae-Kwan travels back and forth around Seoul every time her voice is identified. Each discovery turns out to be a dead end (an old voice message a boyfriend can’t bring himself to erase, a music demo), and each crushes a little more of Hae-Kwan’s hope. It ends with some misplaced Keystone Cops antics and Hae-Kwan finally finding closure. Sadly, whoever Sori is looking for — the ‘bot repeatedly states (in perfect Korean) it needs to find her — is never revealed, and ends up feeling like a plot thread that got lost along the way.
Sori is at its strongest when it focuses on Hae-Kwan and the surprising onion-layer style discoveries he makes about the daughter he was sure he knew (played by Chae Soo-Bin in flashback). Lee balances regret and disbelief effortlessly, and makes the man’s sadness real without tipping into histrionics. As his partner in quasi-crime, Lee Honey brings a smart, no-nonsense attitude to the role, underwritten as it is. Lee Hee-Jun is unfortunately saddled with the comic relief role of the bureaucrat hunting down a valuable intelligence asset. Co-writers Lee and Lee So-Young steer clear of any real commentary on our worldwide surveillance state and the value of information, only offhandedly raising the terrifying specter of a satellite AI tracking people by voice identification, and stick firmly to emotional drama territory, which makes the last-minute chase high-jinks — part comedy, part thriller — feel out of place. Tech specs are polished across the board.
Production company: One Fine Day Film, DCG Plus
Cast: Lee Sung-Min, Lee Hee-Jun, Lee Honey, Shim Eun-Kyoung, Kim Won-Hae, Chae Soo-Bin, Kwak Si-Yang, Ryoo Jun-Yeol
Director: Lee Ho-Jae
Screenwriter: Lee Ho-Jae, Lee So-Young
Producer: Jung Jae-Won
Director of photography: Ju Sung-Lim
Production designer: Lee Jong-Gun
Costume designer: Kim Jung-Won
Editor: Nam Na-Young
Music: Mok Yeong-Jin
World sales: Lotte Entertainment
In Korean, English
Not rated, 117 minutes