Genome Hazard: Busan Review

A polished and professional entertainment.

Korean director Kim Sung-su returns with a modern sci-fi thriller for the second time in one year.

When the word “genome” is in a film title expectations for challenging and somehow terrifying science fiction romp are high. Images of evil corporate entities meddling in the very essence of our collective selves or the twisted mutations that will be our future spring to mind. Genome Hazard, based on Tsukasaki Shiro’s award-winning novel, is neither of those. One part science fiction adventure, one part conspiracy thriller and one part, bafflingly, romance, Genome Hazard can’t settle on what it wants to be and so is none of those completely successfully. The Korea/Japan co-production should find moderate success in its home territories where the cast of familiar, if not superstar, faces will attract attention, as will the book’s built-in audience, and the curiosity factor will carry it a reasonably long way. This kind of sci-fi isn’t that common in the region, where traditional monsters, ghosts and robots still carry the day. Any success on the festival circuit will be centered on genre events.

Writer-director Kim Sung-su, for whom Genome Hazard is the second medical science thriller this year after The Flu, is a workmanlike filmmaker that rarely gets fancy and lets his conventional pictures tell the story. That works here, where the height of stylistic innovation is the washed out color of a dying man’s last hours—both physically and mentally — contrasted with the saturated brightness of the so-called present. Genome Hazard starts strong: Ishigami Taketo (Nishijima Hidetoshi, Kitano Takeshi’s Dolls, Cut) is an average salaryman, toiling away as an illustrator at a design firm and freshly married to Miyuki (Maki Yoko) — or so he thinks. He gets home one night to find his wife dead but receives a phone call from her while he stares at her corpse. So far so good for classic mess-with-your-head sci-fi. Next thing he knows a gang of thugs claiming to be cops bust in to take him away and the chase to unravel the mystery is on. This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Ishigami’s confusion at the circumstances he finds himself in forms the basis of a great thriller, where the hero is the victim of some kind of technological nefariousness he or she can’t prove. It’s not Philip Dick level paranoid, but it’s close. The little details compound each other and create a compelling enough mystery with steady forward momentum, aided by a hoary but effective countdown clock. The wheels start to wobble a bit when Ishigami, with the help of Seoul reporter Kang Ji-won (Kim Hyo-jin), discovers he’s actually a genius Korean biochemist called Oh Jin-woo who’s researching Alzheimer’s for Japanese biotech giant Sugusawa Research.

To this point Genome Hazard has been shaping up as a pharmacological conspiracy thriller pivoting on an examination of the nature of memory, identity, the connection between the two and the question of what would happen could any be manipulated genetically (answer: bad things). And not even some of the most ridiculous science to grace screens in years can really kill the story. That’s down to a misplaced romance that brings the sci-fi to a screeching halt, and, sadly, Nishijima’s histrionics. Kim spend half her screen time looking stunned, but it’s hard to determine if it’s because of Ishigami’s wild tale or Nishijima’s OTT performance. Genome Hazard looks great and frequently visually trumps the characters’ stupid behavior, but it would be a leaner, more focused film at 90 minutes — and without the extra wives.

Production company: Apollon Cinema

Sales: Lotte Entertainment

Producers: Yang Kwang-duk, Lee Geun-wook, Satani Hidemi

Director: Kim Sung-su

Cast: Nishijima Hidetoshi, Kim Hyo-jin, Hamada Manabu, Maki Yoko, Nakamura Yuri, Ibu Masatoh, Lee Kyeong-young

Screenwriter: Kim Sung-su, from the novel by Tsukasaki Shiro

Executive producer: Cha Won-chun

Director of photography: Choi Sang-mul

Production Designer: Lee Zinho, Lee Ji-yeon

Music: Kawai Kenji

Editor: Park Kyoung-sook

No rating, 120 minutes