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Korean Stem Cell Film Tops Box Office

A movie based on the Woo Suk Hwang cloning scandal is popular in South Korea, but the plotline strays from reality.

Oct 9, 2014
Bob Grant

Human embryonic stell cell colony on a mouse embryonic fibroblast feeder layerWIKIMEDIA, SREEJITHK2000 The South Korean film Je-bo-ja (Whistleblower), based on the transgressions of disgraced stem cell scientist Woo Suk Hwang, sits atop the country’s box office, raking in more than 4.5 billion South Korean Won (about USD $4.3 million) in its first weekend in theaters. But a key player in the actual events that unfolded in Hwang’s laboratory told Nature that the movie skews several facts.

Young Joon Ryu was the actual whistleblower who first alerted the world to one of the biggest scientific scandals in history: in the mid-2000s, Hwang had faked data and unethically procured oocytes to claim the successful creation of stem-cell lines from cloned human embryos. Ryu said that Whistleblower credits a news reporter character with many of the revelations that he and bloggers brought to light about the scandal. While he said he understood the movie’s focus on “fast action, dramatic conflicts and famous actors,” he told Nature that the film’s truth bending was eerily familiar to what he had experienced in Hwang’s lab.

Director Soon Rye Yim told Nature that his film was not meant to be a faithful retelling of events but rather a “restructure fiction” crafted to entertain moviegoers. “I wanted to portray him [Hwang] as a character who faces a very human problem, and to show there is room to understand his actions,” Yim said.

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