The literal translation of Kim Jee-woon’s 2012 collaboration with Yim Pil-sung, Inryu myeongmang bogoseo, is “report on the destruction of mankind.” Kim and Yim don’t mince any words there: this anthology series from South Korea demonstrates the fall of humanity in three segments: the zombie outbreak after a date in “A Brave New World,” a robot attempting to achieve enlightenment in “The Heavenly Creature,” and a child’s internet order threatening the world in “Happy Birthday.” Bookended by the funny efforts of Yim in “A Brave New World” and “Happy Birthday,” the curious think-piece crown of this three-parter belongs to Kim’s “The Heavenly Creature.” And in typical Kim Jee-woon fashion, he completely lulls us into a false sense of security whilst providing a point of meditation: robots are among us in plain sight, and they will outsource us due to our own laziness.
At first, it doesn’t appear this way, as the audience is busy focusing on the most compelling character in the room: the robot In-myung (portrayed by Park Hae-il), known to its manufacturer as RU-4. Park Du-won (Kim Kang-woo) has been sent to investigate any malfunctions of the robot, which was originally assigned as a creature comfort for the Buddhist temple. In fact, Park Du-won is told explicitly upon his entry at the temple, “robot assistance allows us to focus on our practices,” meaning that the sole purpose of the robots employed at the temple are to carry out basic maintenance duties. This concept seems at odds with the notions of enlightenment, as assigning menial tasks creates a system of division between the monks and their robotic assistants. This action means that the monks do not view all life as equal and deserving of respect, which automatically throws up a roadblock in the quest for enlightenment. In-myung recognizes this piece of his nature, telling Park, “Please see me for what I am. I realize this must be stressful for you. I am just a machine. Please feel at ease.” This simple interaction – the acknowledgement of his robotic nature – automatically makes us like the calm, even-keeled robot praying amongst the other human monks. Between his observations and comforting, consistent tone, we like In-myung a great deal as he offers teachings to those around him. In-myung doesn’t attempt to run from his demise, nor does he act in a haughty fashion, which makes the robot infinitely more likable than anyone else onscreen. This is someone who has the answers and wants to help humanity, the way a robot is programmed.
Except that not everyone buys this logic as entirely altruistic. Chairman Kang (Song Young-chang), the CEO of the company that made RU-4, shows up to personally witness the decommission of the robot, whom he considers rogue. According to Kang, “Science is subservient to mankind,” and In-myung’s enlightenment poses a direct threat to humanity. Science is now leading the way in terms of instruction on one of the very pieces that defines the human experience: the need to make meaning for the concept that humans refer to as the soul. Kang grasps that without this key characteristic, humans no longer have the skills necessary to function as the dominant life form: without the ability to be spiritual, the servant class violates an enforced social order wherein the lower class becomes the ruling class with greater mental faculties and skills. If there’s a species that is going to win this contest, it’s going to be the one that can both add basic numbers and unlock the greater mysteries of the conscious mind. To illustrate this point, Kang tells the gathered group who protest the decommissioning of In-myung, “The human brain has not evolved since the dissemination of computers, left with only basic arithmetic functions. What is the main number for this temple?” Without thinking, more than half of the monks grab for their cellular phones, damningly proving Kang’s hypothesis that the machines will render humans obsolete if they’re not careful.
The twist of “The Heavenly Creature” is hidden in plain sight all along. While we’re led to believe that it’s a statement on the nature of enlightenment and it’s not until the very end that we realize that our very own Park Du-won is a robot himself. Park’s careless neighbor brings a mechanical dog to him to fix, abandoning it without a word as she stumbles off screen, never to be seen again. After the incident with In-myung in the temple, Park returns home and searches for the dog in the dumpster, then brings it upstairs to fix it. Park then slices into his arm to retrieve a gear, which he uses to give the dog the necessary repairs and life.
The implications of Park’s actions ripple with meaning throughout the segment, especially when the laws of robotics are taken into account. The rules are simple: 1.) robots cannot directly or indirectly hurt humans; 2.) robots must obey orders given by humans, unless if those orders mean that another human will be harmed; 3.) robots must keep themselves alive, unless if this self-preservation causes them to disobey a human order or harm a human. Now let’s apply those rules to Park. On one hand, Park’s employment as a technician means that he was only carrying out his programmed objectives – this rule trickles down into complying with the request of a neighbor we’d otherwise consider obnoxious, and completely unworthy of his assistance. On the other hand, Park sticks up for In-myung, then returns home to complete the task of fixing the dog. Right here, we see a contradiction: Park is willing to disregard his task of dog-fixing, and he’s also willing to argue against the destruction of another of his kind when he should be willing to complete the directive. The fact that Park then gives of his own body manifests two concepts: the words of In-myung’s enlightenment have made an impact in that he views robotic life as equal to human life and therefore worthy of preservation, and the notion that his free will allows him to make this choice. In a sequence that lasts all of 30 seconds – during which we witness the reveal of Park’s robotic nature and his life-giving, Christ-like sacrifice, however minor – Kang’s worst fears have come true: the robot doesn’t play by the rules, unlocks a greater understanding of what it means to be not only human, but charitable, and quietly assimilates so that it is indistinguishable from humanity at first glance. No one else in the temple was willing to give life to defend In-myung as an equal, but they all benefitted from his words and allowed him to become a martyr for enlightenment.
The greater issue here is that In-myung’s words of the interconnectedness of life and the need to continue to see things for what they are hint at a darker philosophical concept: human beings render themselves obsolete by letting something else do the heavy lifting. In this respect, the humans haven’t earned the reward of enlightenment: they cloister themselves away in a monastery to think deep thoughts while the robots clean and attend to the daily matters. They don’t quite get that this isolates them from the ability to observe life and make their own conclusions and connections regarding what it means to be human; they’ve given themselves the time, but the drive is misguided and translates into a poor method. Park, conversely, begins to reject his role as a subservient being, and uses the opportunity of knowledge to make a meaningful self-sacrifice – however small – which then pits him at a level of higher understanding than most humans. If Park can pass as human undetected, then no one will be able to tell the difference between a robot and a human, and the robots will be able to gain the experience while continuing the hold the upper hand of menial labor. Is the work the robots perform glorified? Nope, but not everything in life is a grand task. By embracing the menial and finding meaning in the ordinary, the robots create the case that hard work means that there is a greater spiritual reward; if we’re going to outsource that hard work, we’ve robbed ourselves of meaning, and therefore will lose our place in the intellectual food chain.
The message of “The Heavenly Creature” is therefore one that is equal parts compassion and warning. Evolution is happening whether we want it to or not, and our desire to make ourselves the ruling class – those beings with the leisure time and ability to get something else to do it – will only serve to work against us in the long run. After all, the title of the segment isn’t “The CEO Was Right” or “The Robot Will Show You The Way.” The message is one of observation and self-advancement; those who lack both will achieve neither.