THE STORY – From their balcony at the Hwang Gung apartment complex, Min-seong and Myeong-hwa look out on nothing but corpses and rubble. It seems a miracle their building remains standing when all the others are destroyed. A stranger and her small child soon arrive at Min-seong and Myeong-hwa’s door begging to be let in, followed by dozens of others from the surrounding area desperately seeking food and shelter. As days pass and no rescue teams turn up, the tenants assemble, survey their limited resources, and vote to evict the “outsiders.” When Yeong-tak, the tenants’ elected leader, announces that the outsiders must leave Hwang Gung, all hell breaks loose. From this point on, tenants must be prepared to protect their property by any means necessary.
THE CAST – Lee Byung-hun, Park Seo-joon, Park Bo-young, Kim Sun-young & Park Ji-hu
THE TEAM – Um Tae-hwa (Director/Writer) & Lee Sin-ji (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes
There’s never a shortage of entertaining disaster-thriller films being made or readily available on demand, but it’s a rare find when a film of that genre avoids blockbuster thrills and instead opts to engage in an impactful commentary on society as a whole. Director Um Tae-Hwa’s post-disaster dystopian film “Concrete Utopia” hits all the marks of still being entertaining but also an impressive epic that takes a deeper, more insightful look into human nature than most other films of the genre care to do or attempt. When society has literally crumbled, and we’re left with our basic human impulses to survive, “Concrete Utopia” takes an immersive and terrifying look at how those governed by fear differ from those who choose to govern by compassion and equality.
The film, based on the webtoon “Pleasant Bullying” by Kim Soongnyung, follows a South Korean couple, Min-seong (“Parasite’s” Park Seo-jun) and Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), living in the heart of Seoul in an impressive high-rise apartment complex. One morning, they routinely wake up and peer out their window to an unimaginable sight of absolute carnage surrounding them. They discover an enormous earthquake has desecrated the capital city, leaving only remnants of what used to be civilization in its merciless wake. It turns out that the seemingly last and only standing building left is Min-seong and Myeong-hwa’s own apartment complex. Still, this realization only brings momentary relief as the chaos and repercussions of the disaster have just begun. Whether prepared or not, this couple is irrecoverably thrust into the heart of it all and about to experience the peak of human impetuosity in its most dire state.
Quite expeditiously, “Concrete Utopia” becomes a near study of human nature as desperation and primal instincts emerge from the hundreds, if not thousands, of survivors seeking refuge in the only standing place of shelter. This causes the remaining survivors to revert to somewhat primitive behavior. People are injured, scared, hungry, cold, and tired, and only one standing building can solve their problems. This could have been a blessing for all, except there are not nearly enough resources available for everyone. So now the residents of the building must decide — do the apartment owners get to keep their rightful spaces, or do the sick, the children, and the elderly receive priority? The group soon realizes there is no one correct answer to these moral questions, and the survivors are torn ethically as they weigh their options. In an effort to create some semblance of control and command within the remaining members, the group elects a leader, Yeong-tak (“I Saw The Devil’s” Lee Byung-hun), to look to for decision-making. This starts out fine enough, but the situation soon spirals as leadership is threatened, ethics are challenged, and panicked desperation begins to innately reshape people into unrecognizable members of a previously just society in something more savage.
The performances by the entire ensemble are consistently engaging and multifaceted as the characters are put through the wringer, experiencing immense amounts of trauma and moral dilemmas while becoming weaker, sicker, and gradually more desperate. Watching well-developed and relatable characters’ morals wither over the course of the film’s two-hour runtime is riveting to watch. As it progresses, it becomes entirely more apparent that when it comes down to it, moral code is very likely to go out the window as things change from an “everyone for themselves” situation to a class battle between the “haves” and the “have nots,” to a final internal struggle for power based upon lies, deceit, and fear.
Park Seo-jun and Park Bo-young, who play our central apartment-owning couple, have fantastic chemistry with each other and give consistently heart-wrenching performances. They tackle this feat of displaying decaying human decency with chilling accuracy as we watch them wrestle with the will to survive and their attempts to preserve who they are and what they believe at their core is the best way forward. Lee Byung-hun stands out as Yeong-tak, the nominated leader of the supposed utopia for all who live in the building. He portrays a once simple and unassuming man who soon spirals into self-destruction when he’s given too much power too quickly. It quickly intoxicates and overwhelms him, and in his frightening display of unbridled autocratic authority, one may compare his decisions and transformation to that of a guard from the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.
On a technical level, “Concrete Utopia” is extremely impressive. From the eerily realistic and destroyed sets, simple yet believable wardrobes, and elaborate camerawork, the scale of Um Tae-hwa’s film is massive. Coupling the epic production design by Cho Hwa-sung and cold cinematography from Cho Hyoung-rae, the audience is thrust into an empty, seemingly hopeless grayscale landscape that is populated by the many poor survivors on the screen creating many stunning images of desolation and despair. The editing is crisp and straightforward, propelling the story and Um Tae-Hwa’s elite direction towards a potential answer to the dreadful “what ifs” that surround the uncertainty of the inevitable collapse of modern society as we know it is concentrated and emotionally compelling.
The themes “Concrete Utopia” explores are tackled with an intensity that forces the audience to put themselves in the positions of the people on screen, sympathizing with the characters and questioning what they would do if ever put in the on-screen predicament themselves. Once docile, selfless people resort to feral, primitive behavior when put to the test, selfishness and self-preservation become natural instincts, and relationships crumble under the pressure of the masses. Um Tae-Hwa forces the audience to examine and reflect on any judgment or criticisms one may have of the characters back onto themselves in a memorable and revealing way. Though it stretches a bit long at times, and some may feel its themes have been thoroughly explored in other similar projects, “Concrete Utopia” is a gripping, disturbing, and powerful representation of the worst of society, yet equally showcasing the best qualities in humans and how hope, community, and decency will always exist through the dust and devastation.