Netflix has unveiled “King of Clones,” a sensational documentary film featuring unprecedented access to South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk, and set a June streaming date.
From human cloning research to a scandalous downfall, the documentary tells the story of Korea’s most notorious scientist Hwang Woo-suk. Armed with a degree in veterinary science and a masters and doctorate in theriogenology, the study of animal reproduction, Hwang’s rise to prominence started with his successful cloning of cows and pigs. In 2002, Hwang embarked upon human cloning research and partnered with Moon Shin-yong, an obstetrician with expertise in in-vitro fertilization. Their collaboration led to a major announcement in 2004, claiming the successful cloning of human embryos, with the potential to cure some diseases. The announcement fueled a heated debate on bioethics, despite Hwang and Moon emphasizing that their work focused solely on therapeutic purposes and strongly opposing reproductive cloning.
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However, the tide turned against Hwang in November of that year when he admitted to utilizing human eggs donated by two of his own researchers – an ethical breach that shook the scientific community. Despite Hwang’s insistence that the researchers had willingly made the donations, suspicions of coercion emerged, forcing him to step down from his position as director of the World Stem Cell Hub. Despite this, Hwang retained significant public support in South Korea, with hundreds of women volunteering to donate their eggs. In 2006, Hwang’s position at the Seoul National University was terminated and he later moved to Abu Dhabi where he continued his cloning research under the patronage of Sheikh Mansour.
“King of Clones,” a Netflix U.K. commission is directed by Indian origin, London-based Singaporean filmmaker Adiya Thayi via his Peddling Pictures, which he founded with former Endemol Shine head of line production Kavitha Wijeyaratne in 2017. Thayi has 20 nominations and five wins at the Asian television awards, including two wins for best direction. Peddling Pictures’ latest production, “Riot Island” was selected as one of Variety‘s 15 buzz titles at the 2023 London Screenings and won three prizes at the 2023 New York Festivals Film & TV Awards.
Thayi found out about Hwang fortuitously three years ago. “Before the birth of my first son, I was, for some very strange reason really paranoid that my son was going to come out deformed. And I was actually looking into science of birth and IVF. And then I realized that a lot of these kids born in the 1980s in India were really scarred by the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. I remember seeing thalidomide kids, polio kids, there was a lot of deformity growing up, I think that had probably had some part to play with my own anxiety about before the birth of my own son. I was looking into it and came across some stories about human cloning,” Thayi told Variety.
In preparation for “King of Clones,” Thayi produced “Deciphering South Korea,” a four-part Channel News Asia series that looked at some of the pressing and complex issues in the country. “We are very aware that we are not Koreans telling this story. But in some way it liberated us to tell it without any attachment, but still with our own unique Asian sensibilities,” Thayi said. “We set out to make a film about what happens when the domain of the Gods intersects the domain of scientists and Hwang’s life gave us the material to speak of the various themes we wanted to touch upon.”
It took nine months of writing to Hwang to get access to him and Thayi finally met him and stayed with him at his villa in the grounds of a seven-star hotel in the middle of a desert in Abu Dhabi, owned by Sheikh Mansour. Hwang told Thayi that he receives on an average 50 interview requests a month from American and Korean news organizations, but turns all of them down.
“There’s a reason why he said ‘yes’ to me, and I probably think it’s because I was this Asian international, he felt like he could trust me to tell his version of the story – and definitely not being Korean helped me in my access,” Thayi said.
“I went into this film thinking that I was going to find a crazy monster in the science, but I find that the science – there’s nothing really wrong with it, it’s pretty solid. I think it’s just as human beings, we’ve not really had discussions about where the science can take us,” Thayi added. “It has been possible to clone a human being for at least 10 years, the scientific ability is there, it’s just that somebody somewhere has to just do it. And then you’ll have to reckon with it. But I fear that we’ve not really spent so much time thinking about it.”
Thayi describes Hwang as a “polarizing figure” in Korea and wanted to do an objective take on him. “I could give him space to explain where he came from and even hold him accountable to it. The fact that in some way we were very aware that we wanted to demand an apology from him for all that he has done and in some way he did do that, say sorry, ‘I’m sorry, but this is who I am, like me or not,’ and I admire that,” Thayi said.
“King of Clones” is produced by Syahirah A. Karim and executive produced by Wijeyaratne and Thayi. It is shot by Colm Whelan (IFTA winner for “1916 A Terrible Beauty”) and Neil Harvey (BAFTA nominee for “Untouchable”), edited by Simon Barker (BAFTA nominee for “American Murder: The Family Next Door”) and features a score by Dan Deacon (“Hustle”). It streams on Netflix from June 23.
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