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From the vibrant opening montage of Concrete Utopia, South Korea’s official selection for the Best International Feature Academy Award this year, audience members are thrust into the film’s provenance: how high-rise residential buildings and apartment towers, with its supposed convenience and affordability, have largely transformed and cemented the foundation of Korean life — a salient feature that has also become a status marker for many. The city at its most capitalist, one might venture to say.
The narrative, though, swiftly betrays this festive tone and, by extension, the film’s title, because what unfolds later on is the sheer opposite of utopia. The city, with all its former glories, gets buried in the ground in an Oppenheimer-esque destruction, rendering once-promising homes beyond recognition, streets ravaged by earthquakes and explosions, and citizens still reeling from the ruin, searching for something safe and familiar, and awaiting rescue that is nowhere in sight. Everything is basically reduced to dust and wreckage.
Except for one apartment complex, the centerpiece onto which the film affixes its expansive interrogation of humanity and socioeconomic disparities in a time of survival, placing its characters in the tight spot of whether or not they should allow non-residents into the only livable building left standing. And the story finds different, if not widely conflicting, moral compasses in its three central characters: the self-serving Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun), the caring Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), and Min-seong (Park Seo-joon), who is caught in between these two ideological extremes.
After preventing a fire from escalating in the complex, Yeong-tak is then elected as the residents’ leader, quickly changing the power dynamics between him and the rest of the occupants. Next in command, and often tagging alongside him, is Min-seong, known to be a public servant. But this relationship will soon grow weary as Min-seong is forced to confront the principles he holds dearly — principles that are adjacent to that of his wife Myeong-hwa, assigned to take care of the wounded — especially when things begin to cross lines he never dared cross before. This, after kicking out the outsiders from the complex.
The film is effective, precisely because it is able to harness the talent of Lee Byung-hun as a reliable force to wade through many gray areas that benefit its central preoccupation. In a harrowing moment, Yeong-tak stands before a gleeful crowd and sings his beloved song, the camera gently fixating on his face, just as he recalls, as if in a trance, the awful things he has done to be in his position. And it’s particularly chilling how Lee Byung-hun contains the tortured psyche of his character, all while trying to remain macho and tough, embodying in the process how a small taste of power can disrupt plenty of things, chief of which is one’s humanity.
Of course, it’s no surprise that some would compare Concrete Utopia to the likes of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan film series, given the overarching themes of humanity’s worst impulses, class issues, and post-apocalyptic worlds bridging all three. And director Um Tae-hwa, in collaboration with cinematographer Lee Hyung-deok, shepherds the film pretty confidently, yielding some truly transportive images outlining the madness of the entire thing, and even the flickers of hope that can somehow emerge from it, especially towards the endnote. There’s also a lot of thought put into the production design, which locates the story in a distinct Korean context but also in another terrain and frame of mind altogether. The film has its hilarious moments, too (cue that satirical, advert-like montage when the residents decide to retrofit some parts of the building).
Yet it becomes hard to move past the film’s mishaps in writing. Much of the screenplay by Um Tae-hwa and Lee Sin-ji operates on broad strokes, often obscuring the interiorities of the characters, save maybe for Yeong-tak. The outsiders, even as the film takes most of its time navigating the space where they live and eventually die, somehow end up one-dimensional. It’s also a missed opportunity for the writing to not flesh out and dig deep into the relationship of the central couple, which would have brought more gravity to the moral and emotional tension between them. The pace, likewise, risks being fickle and tricky at times, weighing down what the material, at its core, hopes to convey.
Still, Concrete Utopia knows how to make a pretty satisfying ending, patiently waiting for the right moment to let its emotional wires crack open and erupt, so that one cannot help but make way for the tears. Despite its setbacks, the film presents a compelling argument for shaping hope and community at a time when all imaginable horrors turn us, slowly and gently, into monsters far worse than we can imagine. – Rappler.com
Concrete Utopia is now playing in theaters nationwide.