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NYAFF 2015, Day 12: The Whistleblower Weighs National Interest Against the Truth

By  · Published on July 8th, 2015

M-Line Distribution

The New York Asian Film Festival returns for a 14th year showcasing an exciting and eclectic mix of movies from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, China and Malaysia. This year brings a total of 54 feature films including two world premieres and three international premieres, and while I’m once again unfortunately unable to experience the fest on the ground in NYC I’m excited to cover as much as I can remotely.

Day twelve of the festival features two films – The Whistleblower and The Waikiki Brothers.

NYAFF 2015 runs June 26th through July 11th. Follow our coverage here.

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Movies about whistleblowers – people who risk their careers, privacy and even their lives to expose corruption, crimes and other acts of wrongdoing on the part of companies or governments – are nothing new, with films like Silkwood, All the President’s Men and The Insider being critically acclaimed explorations of real-world individuals fighting battles against far bigger and stronger enemies – usually to detrimental effect on their own well-being. It should surprise no one that the United States holds no exclusive rights to a need for such self-sacrificing heroics.

The citizens of South Korea experience a burst of national pride when a local doctor, Lee Jang-hwan (Lee Kyoung-young), announces that his lab has successfully cloned human stem cells. The world takes notice, but when Yoon Min-cheol (Park Hae-il, Moss), the producer of a popular news program, is tipped off by one of the doctor’s former employees, Shim Min-ho (Yoo Yeon-seok), that Lee’s test eggs may have come from a shady source he begins an investigation that discovers something far more damaging. There never were any cloned stem cells.

Yoon’s efforts bring him the scorn of both the public and the politicians, all of whom prefer to believe that their country is on the cutting edge of something truly revolutionary, and it’s not long before his own bosses are taking heat and passing it on to him and his co-workers, show host Lee Sung-ho (Park Won-sang) and ace researcher Kim Yi-seul (Song Ha-yoon, Dasepo Naughty Girls).

Director Yim Soonrye’s ethical thriller is based on a true story from 2005, and while it takes quite a few dramatic liberties the core elements remain true to the real incident. Unlike most tales on the subject the truth here finds its way to the public sooner rather than later, but what’s most fascinating is how the public chooses to receive it.

They rebel against the accusations, preferring instead to accept the doctor’s word and promise at face value. Some have a personal stake as they or their loved ones are ill and potential benefactors from stem cell research, but others are simply acting out of national pride. We expect to see the doctor and Yoon’s bosses pushing back against the story, but seeing the strongest voice of opposition be the public – the very people Yoon is trying to inform – offers an intriguing look at the idea of a citizenry getting the world they deserve.

While it doesn’t seem to have a basis in reality, the film crafts Lee as a good man who stumbled into a lie and then felt obligated to get out of it. He can’t bring himself to let the people down, and his sincere desire to help people in the future leads him to hurt them in the present. Lee Kyoung-young makes that fine line visible in the doctor’s actions and expressions, and it’s easy to see why people wanted so badly to believe in his claims. Park Hae-il is solid here too although he’s tasked with little more than constantly moving forward.

The film never outstays its welcome, but there are scenes that could easily be trimmed from the two hour running time without affecting the experience in the slightest. Chief among them are a handful of moments between Yoon and his wife. They hint at pre-existing tensions and impending ultimatums, but they lack real weight – we get it, he works a lot – and are ultimately left dangling anyway.

There’s also an issue of tension, or lack thereof at times, stemming from the stakes at hand here. The men and women attempting to do the right thing here are at risk of little more than unemployment – an admittedly scary threat for an individual – but from the higher perspective that simply isn’t all that damning. Instead the drama shifts from what may or may not happen to the whistleblowers over to the surreal observation of a populace choosing a lie over the truth simply because it makes them feel better. Koreans refused to even listen to Shim and Yoon’s evidence in favor of simply backing the good doctor because of what his efforts mean to them and the nation.

The question is asked early on (and again much later) as to which is more important, national interest or the truth. Sides are chosen, but the correct answer is realizing just how interconnected the two are. Truth is in the national interest, and the national interest is in truth. The Whistleblower explores that line with energetic drama, strong characters and performances, and a tale that could just as easily transpire here at home.

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NYAFF 2015 runs June 26th through July 11th. Follow our coverage here.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.