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Stem-cell fraud makes for box office success

Posted on behalf of David Cyranoski and Soo Bin Park

Fictionalized film follows fabricated findings

Stem cell fraudster faces down the journalist who debunks him in the film sweeping Korean cinemas.

Stem-cell fraudster faces down the journalist who debunks him in the film sweeping Korean cinemas.

Wannabe Fun

A movie based on the Woo Suk Hwang cloning scandal drew more than 100,000 viewers on its opening day (2 October) and has been topping box office sales in South Korea since then. With some of the country’s biggest stars, it has made a blockbuster out of a dismal episode in South Korean stem-cell research — and revealed the enduring tension surrounding it.

The movie, Whistleblower, shines a sympathetic light on Woo Suk Hwang, the professor who in 2004 and 2005 claimed to have created stem-cell lines from cloned human embryos. The achievement would have provided a means to make cells genetically identical to a patient’s own, and able to form almost any type of cell in the body. But hopes were shattered when Hwang’s claims turned out to be based on fraudulent data and unethical procurement of eggs. The whistleblower who revealed the fraud says the new movie strays far from reality.

“This topic is sensitive, so I was hesitant when I got the first offer,” said director Yim Soon-rye at the premiere on 16 September in Seoul. “I wanted to portray him [Lee Jang-hwan, Hwang’s character in the film] as a character who faces a very human problem, and to show there is room to understand his actions.”  Although clearly inspired by the real-life events surrounding Hwang and his cloning claims, the film does not aim to be a true representation of events, but a ‘restructured fiction’ created for a movie audience.

The movie broadly traces the scandal as it actually unravelled, tracing the process through which the stem-cell claims were debunked. Some changes are made, apparently for dramatic effect: Snuppy, the Afghan hound produced by cloning in Hwang’s laboratory, was converted into Molly, also an Afghan hound, but one with cancer. When Lee sees the writing on the wall, he is shown going to a Buddhist temple where he rubs Molly’s fur, saying “I came too far … I missed my chance to stop.”

Yim says he wanted the fraudster “to be interpreted multi-dimensionally, rather than as a simple fraud or evil person”.

But rather than the scientists, Yim put the perseverance of the reporter at the centre of the film, and ends up skewing relevant facts, says Young-Joon Ryu, the real whistleblower. Ryu, who had been a key figure in Hwang’s laboratory, says his own contributions and those of online bloggers were credited to the reporter. (The discovery that Hwang had unethically procured eggs, first reported in Nature, was also credited to the reporter.)

The film has refuelled anger in some Hwang supporters who believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that Hwang did have human-cloning capabilities and that the scandal deprived the country of a star scientist. They are back online calling Ryu a betrayer.

Ryu understands that a movie might emphasize “fast action, dramatic conflicts and famous actors” to increase box office revenues. But having suffered through one perversion of the truth as Hwang made his original claims, watching the film he says that he felt was witnessing another.

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