In 2004, Korean doctor Hwang Woo-suk published that he, along with his team of researchers, had successfully cloned a human embryo and were able to remove stem cells from it. The revelation rocked the scientific community as the breakthrough was the first of its kind, yet it was surpassed only a year later when Hwang claimed to have created 11 human embryonic stem cells. As such, Hwang and his team had the ability to work on remedies for diseases previously believed to be incurable, catapulting the doctor into the limelight as a national hero and a savior of the Korean economy. Except that, as an investigation in 2006 by MBC reporters revealed, it was all a lie. Despite the evidence however, many Koreans still believe that doctor Hwang is the ‘pride of Korea’, and that to question his work is unpatriotic.
Whistle Blower (제보자), by director Lim Soon-rye (임순례) and screenwriter Lee Choon-hyeong (이춘형), is based on the scandalous affair that caused international embarrassment for the Korean scientific community. The thriller focuses on investigative journalist Min-cheol (Park Hae-il (박해일) as he is tipped off about the stem cell hoax by whistle blower Min-ho (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석). Joining forces with intrepid young reporter I-seul (Song Ha-yoon (송하윤), the duo begin digging into the claims of Doctor Lee Jang-hwan (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영), and uncover a series of shocking revelations while also contending with angry Korean citizens.
Given the electrifying and scandalous subject material, the potential for a explosive and culturally resonating conspiracy thriller was high. Yet with Whistle Blower director Lim and screenwriter Lee have crafted a standard effort, one that is competent and ticks all the boxes of the genre yet is uninspired and barely scratches the surface of the core issues with which the film is concerned.
The true-life crime features not only a hoax on an international scale, but the collusion of the then-government and media in both propelling the fraud into the national consciousness as well as stifling the investigation into it, while the zealous nationalistic fervor of the populace offers potent introspective exploration. Such issues are depicted in a very limited capacity or completely omitted altogether which is more than a little disappointing, and while watching Whistle Blower the sense that the filmmakers were censored as much as the characters within the film adds an acute sense of irony.
Where Whistle Blower succeeds is through the journey of producer Min-cheol, as he attempts to uncover evidence to support his case against Dr. Lee. Director Lim does well in representing the variety of obstacles in his path and paces the story well, resulting in a thriller that moves along briskly and is rarely dull. The various tip offs continually spur interest while the back room politics within the station add an additional threat of urgency, as well as hinting at the larger scale corruption of Korean conglomerates.
Park Hae-il is in typically good form as the investigative producer, though as there is little in the way of character development the role is far from demanding. He works best when playing off of the supportive cast, particularly his intrepid assistant I-seul and team leader Seong-ho, played by Song Ha-yoon and Park Won-sang (박원상) respectively. Despite their limited presence throughout the film both Song and Park are highly charismatic, endearing protagonists, giving impressive performances and often steal the show whenever they are on screen.
Ironically whistle blower Min-ho is given very little screen-time and development that mostly requires actor Yoo to walk around appearing pitiful, with the narrative largely focusing – repetitively – on his and wife Mi-hyeon’s (Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong (류현경) sick child. This is a great shame and a missed opportunity given that that real whistleblower is still considered something of a traitor by many in contemporary Korea. Luckily however, actress Ryoo provides the best performance in the film despite her extremely limited presence, making the situation one possible to invest in.
Interestingly, the filmmakers have opted to represent the fraudulent Dr. Lee in a rather positive, sympathetic light. The narrative seeks to portray the doctor less as a criminal, and more of a man whose ambition to help both the sick and Korea at large got the better of him. There are occasional hints at his manipulative genius, yet the story doesn’t delve deeper into the illegalities outside of the fabricated stem cell research, which is truly bizarre and a waste of potential.
Given the scandalous true story on which the film is based, Whistle Blower had the potential to be an explosive thriller and a keen exploration of a variety of facets in contemporary Korean culture. Yet director Lim Soon-rye and screenwriter Lee Choon-hyeong have produced a standard, uninspired example of the genre, one which fulfills the criteria but never delves deeply into the issues of the time. Whistle Blower is competent yet disappointing, and is a real missed opportunity.