The stem-cell disgrace of Korean cloning fraudster Hwang Woo-suk has now inspired a movie. Whistle Blower opened in Korea this week. Names have been changed, and it's presented as fiction, but no one is even pretending it's not about the scientific "scandal of the century" that unfolded between 2004 and 2006.
Hwang became world-famous for his 2004 claim that he had achieved what at the time was considered a momentous breakthrough: cloning a human embryo and producing stem cells from it, potentially opening the way for new therapies. But his published papers were fraudulent and eventually retracted; he was found to have coerced subordinates to provide their eggs for his research and broken laws in acquiring eggs from other women, and he was convicted of misappropriating funds. (He has since set up his own institute, working on cloned dogs and other animals with a variety of collaborators, including a British TV network, Russians who hope to revive mammoths and a Chinese dog-cloning company.)
The new film, as its name suggests, focuses on the way the story was reported -- the working title was The Messenger. Hwang attracted so much publicity and support that revealing his transgressions required considerable bravery on the part of the journalists involved, not to mention Young-Joon Ryu, the scientist who was their primary source. Ryu and his family had to go into hiding for six months, he was out of work for over a year, and he still gets denounced for "injuring the nation."
Indeed, Korea Joongang Daily headlines its article on the film, "Stem cell scandal movie casts doubts on integrity of press."
A Wall Street Journal piece opens with a slightly different spin on the same angle:
The first feature film based on the story of a South Korean scientist's fraudulent stem cell research and the ensuing fallout in the early 2000s, Whistle Blower, centers on a dilemma: "Which should take priority: truth or the national interest?"
Of course, neither approach puts Hwang in a very good light, which may explain why he couldn't be reached for comment.
There is no word yet of a release outside South Korea, but the trailer is on YouTube and definitely worth a look; some of it is subtitled or described in English on this showbiz site (the first couple of minutes of video). The stars have been parading (scroll down to #3) on the red carpet at a film festival, and at least some early reviews seem to be favorable. Maybe the movie, which really only claims to be a thriller, will actually change the image of Hwang Woo-suk.