INNOVATION, IDENTITY, CHOSEN FAMILY: JO SUNG-HEE'S "SPACE SWEEPERS"
Feature photos from Space Sweepers (Netflix)
Maybe Bubs and the revelation of finding someone who understands her reminds me of myself, and my own chosen family.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Jo Sung-Hee’s 'Space Sweepers,’ a film lauded as Korea’s first ever space blockbuster, begins in the year 2092. Earth has become polluted, dangerous, and almost uninhabitable; 95% of the human population lives there, while the remaining 5% live on an idyllic space habitat created by a corporation called UTS.
As Earth continues to become more polluted, dangerous, and neglected, UTS, headed by CEO James Sullivan, and the citizens of the space habitat thrive and innovate. It feels dystopian, but painfully familiar at the same time. In our own world, huge populations suffer, starve, and die while we focus on technological advancement and making as much money as we possibly can. Our forests burn and our sea levels rise while we expand our corporations and our factories. And we think of ourselves as evolved for doing it; for prioritizing innovation over the natural world and our most vulnerable communities.
Sullivan states that only the “most upstanding citizens” make it to UTS - and the fact that they’re also the most wealthy is merely a coincidence. In the first few minutes of the film, a plant sprouts between cracks in the pavement of the polluted Earth: a sign of life, of hope. Seconds later, a passing vehicle runs it over, destroying it.
‘Space Sweepers’ features the high speed chases, gritty fight scenes, and riveting special effects you’d expect to see in any space western; however, the rich histories and inner lives of its characters, the diversity of its cast, and its exploration of identity are less typical and therefore much more compelling. I love a CGI space battle as much as the next person, but there’s something about the typical space western that never really sticks with me. I tend to enjoy it in the moment, watch the credits roll, and then basically forget I watched it. Seeing ‘Space Sweepers’ was a very different experience for me.
We meet our ragtag group of main characters in dire straits - broke, in crippling debt, and barely surviving. They’re a crew of (you guessed it) ‘space sweepers,’ who fly a ship called the Victory and collect and sell debris from around the Earth. At the helm is Captain Jang, a former child genius who grew up to be a rebel, and now drinks copiously to deal with the trauma and losses of her past. Tiger Park, covered in tattoos and rough around the edges, was formerly involved in a drug cartel and eventually sentenced to death, a fate he faces should he ever return to Earth. Our main protagonist, Tae-Ho, is a former UTS soldier on a quest to find the adopted daughter he lost in space.
Tae-Ho is heartbreaking; his life seems to be composed of one tragedy after another. His daughter, Su-Ni, is hearing impaired due to shots that Tae-Ho fired when she was a baby, in the altercation that also killed her birth mother. After he becomes a father, he finds himself unable to hurt anyone, leading him to lose his job and status as a soldier, and be exiled back to Earth with Su-Ni. One night, while Tae-Ho is gambling, a nearby collision causes Su-Ni to be ejected into open space and lost.
One can imagine how he must feel. Enormously guilty for losing his daughter in the first place. Hopeless, as the odds of finding her again become slimmer and slimmer every day. Painfully disillusioned - if he hadn’t met Su-Ni in the first place, would he still be mindlessly gunning down civilians as a UTS soldier? In short, the man clearly needs to be in therapy.
The night that Su-Ni vanishes into space is particularly painful to watch. As Tae-Ho gambles, Su-Ni tugs at him, attempting to get his attention; he brushes her off, focused on his game. She wanders away, and the collision that changes both of their lives forever occurs shortly after.
I’d guess that Tae-Ho must think about that moment endlessly. If he had just paused for one second, looked down at his daughter, and listened to what she was trying to tell him, things might have been completely different. But in a moment of weakness at the worst possible time, Tae-Ho took Su-Ni’s presence for granted, and lost her to space.
The final Victory crew member is Bubs, a trans character with a sci-fi twist. She is a robot, voiced by a male actor, who is saving up to purchase a new voice and skin graft that better match her identity. It’s clear that Bubs’s situation is difficult; skin grafts and new voices are expensive. Even her other crew members, the people who seem to be closest to her, misgender her as “he.”
Bubs is strong and self-assured, but it’s still easy to feel sympathy for her. She seems to feel very alone in her situation; she lacks confidants, people she can relate too. She also feels disconnected and misrepresented by her physical form, which is unfortunately, a somewhat common sentiment, even in our world.
Enter Kot-Nim, a child also known as Dorothy. Kot-Nim is something of a superhero. Born with a nerve disease that could kill her if left unchecked, her scientist father injects her with nanobots that both heal her and give her special abilities. After she brings a dead tree on the Victory back to life, it becomes clear that her powers have the potential to rehabilitate the Earth.
As the Victory crew comes to realize that despite her special abilities, Kot-Nim is, in fact, simply a child, they soften. They care for her, encourage her, learn to love her.
Perhaps most interesting is her relationship with Bubs. In one particularly tender scene, Bubs and Kot-Nim sit facing each other in a small, cluttered room on the ship, bathed in warm light. Bubs applies makeup to Kot-Nim’s face, drastically overlining her lips, drawing on dramatic, winged eyeliner, contouring her tiny cheeks. Kot-Nim offhandedly refers to Bubs as “unnie,” or older sister.
It’s a beautiful moment; it feels both casual and natural, but Bubs is flattered and pleased to the point of being flustered. Finally, she has met someone who really sees her, someone who sees past the physical. Perhaps it’s simply because Kot-Nim is a child with fewer preconceived notions about gender than most adults, but Kot-Nim sees Bubs as she truly is and accepts her for it without question.
Bubs is not yet able to present as physically female, but she has found someone who sees her that way anyways, and loves her as she is. At the end of the conversation, Bubs says to Kot-Nim, “aren’t we girlfriends? You can trust me.”
Towards the end of the film, after a standoff with Sullivan and his soldiers, our main protagonist Tae-Ho faces a difficult decision. He finally has enough money to find his missing daughter, but if he abandons them now, Kot-Nim and the rest of his crew will surely perish. He must choose between the possibility of regaining the life that he had before, and saving the family that he has now.
When we first met the Victory crew, they seemed more like co-workers than friends, let alone a family. They lived and worked together, but that was the extent of their bond. Perhaps the adversity they’d faced helped them realize that they’d taken their little family for granted. Perhaps Kot-Nim was the missing piece that made them realize they were a family at all. In any case, something has changed and the crew embarks on what seems like a suicide mission, in order to save Kot-Nim’s life.
As the Victory crew seemingly hurtles towards certain death, Tae-Ho calls flying with them an honor. Tiger tells them they’re his best friends. “You guys know I love you, right?” asks Bubs. Captain Jang remains quiet, but doesn’t hesitate to, colloquially, roast her crew for their candor, the moment she knows they’re safe. The crew reunites with Kot-Nim, the family together once more.
‘Space Sweepers’ calls to mind both the nostalgia and the excitement of a typical space Western. But the true diversity of its cast and the complexity of its characters are what set it apart from the rest. I felt a sense of accomplishment as the credits rolled, as though I’d flown alongside the Victory crew and assisted their triumph. I’d never felt that way after watching a film like this before.
I think I felt seen in this film, in a way that I never did by Star Wars or Star Trek. Those films seemed to make those who watched them feel alive and invincible; I never completely understood that sentiment, but after seeing Space Sweepers, I think I do.
Maybe it’s because the majority of the main characters are Asian - that’s the most obvious answer. Maybe Bubs and the revelation of finding someone who understands her reminds me of myself, and my own chosen family. Maybe it’s Kot-Nim, and her Asian bowl cut - end of story.
At the end of this film, the underdogs beat the odds, and as movie characters are often wont to do, they live happily ever after. I’m not a movie character, a space sweeper, or a robot, but it made me feel like I could too.