(WARNING! Potential spoilers ahead! Read at your own risk~)
Considering the controversial topic of stem cell research and cloning, I was extremely interested and excited to see this movie when I heard of it. Of course it had the added bonus of having as one of its leads, my favourite Korean actor Yoo Yeon Seok, and despite the fact that I was made aware of this movie due to the news of him being cast in it, it only served as the launching pad for my growing interest in it.
Based on the real life events and subsequent scandal surrounding the once lauded Professor Hwang Woo Seok – a man once considered a national treasure and hero, the man who could once do no wrong. In ‘Whistle Blower’, the Professor Hwang character is represented by a Professor Lee Jang Hwan. This change of name was necessary considering this issue is still ongoing and very topical. The director who was bravely willing to take this stranger than fiction issue on, was the director Im Soon Rye, and it stars the versatile and talented Park Hae Il; the respected and dependable veteran actor Lee Kyeong Young; the “veteran rookie actor” and Chungmuro’s bright new hope and blue chip star – Yoo Yeon Seok; and admirably backed up by a talented supporting cast, including Yoo Yeon Seok’ regular acting partner – Ryu Hyun Kyung.
The movie starts out with Park Hae Il’s character, Yoon Min Chul – the PD of a current affairs TV program ‘PD Investigation’, listening to a source who had promised him a scoop. The source turns out to be an aggrieved husband, who cannot understand why his previously robust and “strong enough to chew rocks” wife had suddenly died post-operatively. PD Yoon is quickly uninterested and as he goes to leave, explaining that the story that the husband had given to him isn’t consistent or reliable, the husband sparks Min Chul’s interest by blurting out that this operation had occurred for the explicit reason of his wife selling her ova for money. The experienced PD Yoon, sniffs a huge scoop and a story to be explored, and sets up surveillance in front of this so called hospital where that man’s recently deceased wife had gone. There he sees a van full of young women entering that building. From his research, we find out that that clinic is closely linked with Professor Lee’s stem cell research, and as such it would be tantamount to treason to even suggest unethical or shady dealings were going on. We hear Yoon PD trying to recall the name of a researcher that he knows of from Professor Lee’s lab.
A change of scene, where we see Professor Lee lecturing to an auditorium full of medical students/ health professionals. He radiates charisma and manages to be humble, funny, intelligent and has an aura about him where you would trust him with your life and the lives of your loved ones. They all look on at him with almost a religious zeal. He is the second coming – the messiah of stem cell research. He has put South Korea on the international map in stem cell technology.
We switch scenes and we see a slumped figure of a man sitting in the dark. It is Shim Min Ho played by Yoo Yeon Seok. (Literally biting my lips trying not to squee out loud at this point)
His wife (played by Ryu Hyun Kyung) comes home and wonders why he’s been sitting in the dark. He responds it’s because he doesn’t want to wake their daughter up. We soon find out that their daughter is very sick indeed with an incurable disease, and has frequent bouts of intense pain. It is soon apparent that this is a man who is struggling emotionally, financially and ethically. His eyes speak volumes even without a word being said. We see that Shim Min Ho receives a call from Yoon PD, but as he is out, his wife takes the call and denies that this number belongs to Min Ho. This must be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as this spurs him on to contact Yoon PD to blow the whistle on the situation. This is where this all gets a bit cloak and dagger, and they use that well known Korean cliché of meeting at night on the banks of the Han River and the pivotal scene of ‘Whistle Blower’ takes place. Min Ho informs Min Chul that although he has no evidence, that there was never any cloned stem cells in existence. Prof Lee had never succeeded in cloning any of the 11 stem cells that he reported to have done. Min Ho as Prof Lee’s ex-research team leader is the perfect person to know these facts. Yoon PD is both excited, overwhelmed and filled with trepidation. He knows that this is huge and this news will cause seismic waves to reverberate across South Korea.
This sets off a chain of events as Yoon PD goes about gathering information and finding sources to get this story together, despite opposition from his colleagues, his bosses, the prime minister’s office and the South Korean public. We see the toll that it takes on his personal life, as his family is virtually ignored as he concentrates on getting this story. The other man who puts everything on the line is Min Ho, as he has already quit his job, as his morals do not allow him to continue on with this lie, and something that has detrimentally affected his colleague. This is despite him having a sick daughter whose illness would rack up a lot of medical bill, and having a wife who is still working as part of Prof Lee’s team, and opposing his decisions. But as he tells Min Chul, he entered the field of medicine to help people, and now he wants his daughter to be proud of her father. He wanted to be able to look his daughter in her eyes, and know he had done the right thing. There are not many men in the world like that who have “abandoned everything” to tell the truth.
Despite initially thinking that Professor Lee is the villain, I came out thinking that he too was a victim of sorts. He was a victim of his own success and ambition. He got caught up in his own mythology and the public’s thirst for a win. He too began in this field to make a difference, to do good in the world. He truly wanted to help those with incurable diseases. It’s just that a lie spawned more lies, and it became too late to undo them.
Overall this movie was paced perfectly. My dad who watched this with me, commented that the pacing was done so well that there was never a dull moment. He also commented that there was a sensitivity and attention to detail present in this movie, perhaps due to it having a female director. As for the acting – I can honestly say without bias, that all of the cast were phenomenal. Everyone immersed themselves completely into their characters, not just in the way they spoke, but in the way they emoted through their eyes and posture. High commendations to Yoo Yeon Seok, whose every emotion was conveyed through his eyes perfectly. I felt his emotional pain and ethical struggle with him through those eyes. They haunt me still… The desperation, determination, and drive was delivered flawlessly by Park Hae Il – can this man do no wrong?! And we can’t leave out the performance of Lee Kyeong Young, who encapsulated the dichotomy of a man was driven by his own ambition, and yet also driven initially by the desire to help those in need. A man who was trapped in the vortex of his own lies. Through his portrayal of the charismatic Professor, I could see why Prof Hwang has avid supporters to this very day. This film showcases how intensely patriotic South Koreans are – anyone who brings pride and glory to South Korea is lauded and considered a “National treasure”. The public are very one-eyed about these people, and it would take extreme courage, perseverance and emotional stability to dare to paint these “treasures” in a bad light. Basically gird your loins for the onslaught of vitriol and abuse to begin. Not only would you have to contend with being the most hated person in South Korea, but prepare yourself for the netizens who are a power unto themselves. It’s due to people like Yoon PD and his team, and Shim Min Ho and his wife, that truth still exists, and we are not suckered into a mythology which in the long run would cause harm and false hope. I give this movie 4.5/5 just coz I never give full marks lol, and there wasn’t enough Yoo Yeon Seok in it. To be honest, considering the amount that he appeared in this movie, I would not be billing him as a co-leading actor, but as acting in a special role. But that is my only gripe.
This movie does not fail to deliver in thrills or emotions, and every character is crafted and delivered so realistically. It is an enjoyable movie, and will hopefully leave you questioning what you would do if you were in the situations that each of the three main men found themselves in.