By Robert St. Martin
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/18/23 – The 9th annual Asian World Film Festival 2023 in Los Angeles began this year with a gala event and the screening of Um Tae-hwa’s moralizing disaster film Concrete Utopia (South Korea, 2023) on November 8 with a reprise of the film on November 13. Concrete Utopia feels like a blockbuster-level thought experiment about social organization in an apocalypse. A provocative exploration of human behavior, full of moral quandaries and complex characters. Based on a Kim Soong-Nyung’s Korean webtoon Cheerful Outcast Part II, Cheerful Neighbor. The film was selected to be South Korea’s entry for the Academy Awards in 2024. Tackling some serious issues, the film makes us ponder: How does a community organize itself, when existing institutions are destroyed? Do humans naturally desire moral and social order?
Concrete Utopia opens with an earthquake decimating almost all of Seoul, leaving a wake of rubble and dust. Only one apartment complex, Hwang Gung Apartments, remains standing, home to about 180 residents. The rousing opening minutes, and intriguing premise soon give way to a more ponderous, solemn procession in the film’s first hour. Viewers are introduced to the apartment’s dwellers like elected leader Yeong-tak (the eternally enigmatic Lee Byung-hun), husband-and-wife Min-sung (the wildly popular Park Seo-jun) and Myung-hwa (Park Bo-young), as well as Geum-ae (Kim Sun-young), the head of Hwang Gung Apartments women’s association.
In this devastatingly bleak ruined city, help never turns up for the inhabitants: There are no firefighters, no ambulances, no search and rescue teams. Yeong-tak, along with other residents, rally together and establish three rules amid the disaster: allowing only residents to live in the building (non-residents are brutally pushed out), dividing rations as proportionate to each resident’s contributions toward the community, and making decisions through democratic consensus.
Nurse Myung-hwa (Park Bo-young) and her husband Min-sung (Park Seo-jun), a former civil servant, are among those who feel lucky to be alive. Her immediate instinct is to provide help for others, his is to focus on survival. Those traits will define their characters as the full horrors of life after the earthquake begin to take shape.
After fearlessly rushing into a burning house to put out a blaze, Yeong-tak is quickly deemed to have the qualities of a leader and is appointed the Resident Delegate, tasked with mapping out the path to survival. Yeong-tak muses, “I feel like our apartment has been chosen.” This quip shapes the film as a kind of divine tragedy, but instead of a sacred flood, it is with an almighty earthquake that mankind is abandoned by the gods and asked to rebuild the earth. Yeong-tak initiates a policy that the complex should be for residents only, with everyone else banished to their fate in the freezing cold ruins of Seoul.
Concrete Utopia meanders along like a fairly typical blockbuster disaster movie until the halfway point, when Hye-won (Park Ji-hu), the daughter of a resident of the apartment complex, suddenly shows up from the outside. Existing as an “outsider” who has newly become an insider in the Hwang Gung Apartments (as the accidental child of a love affair between a resident and non-resident), Hye-won shatters the illusion of fairness and stability in the community’s emergency-time system. Through Hye-won’s condemnation of the apartment’s rules and suspicions about the actual background of the elected leader Yeong-tak. the disaster movie evolves into a more frightening mystery and moral interrogation, plumbing the depths of human depravity.
One resident proclaims that amid the disaster, “a murderer and a pastor are now the same,” while others whisper about disappearing corpses, as some residents resort to cannibalism to stave off hunger. But the moral persistence of characters like Hye-won and Myung-hwa, as they tend to the wounds of residents and snoop around for clues to Yeong-tak’s past, offer some hope that the collapse of the city won’t automatically lead to the fall of humanity and its values.
The ending takes a shockingly dark turn which may leave some viewers upset and others wondering about the larger allegorical aspects of this dystopian drama. To what extent is the film a commentary on the two Koreas? Is there hope for humans to survive under such dire circumstances? What does it mean to be a survivor?
Concrete Utopia’s focus on apartment blocks accords the film with an urgent voice, given how public housing has become a sensitive flashpoint in South Korea, in the wake of a giant scandal involving the Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH) in 2021. Officials from the agency were suspected of using privileged information about future government housing programs for personal gain. Hwang Gung Apartments is not a neutral dwelling, but a key visual link to the real-life Korean politics that informs Um Tae-hwa’s work. The film turns the question of capital on its head when money is made absurd amid the city’s destruction – cash no longer has value, instead, barter trade flourishes in the apartment, with water, oil and lighters becoming sought-after resources.
Cinematographer Cho Hyoung-rae serves the story as the ash grey tones of a ruined Seoul contrast with the bright daylight of the flashbacks or the warming glow of safety in the individual apartments. Lee Byung-Hun as the elected leader Yeong-tak heads a strong cast, investing his increasingly psychotic character with his ruthless, unyielding determination. Park Bo-young and Park Seo-jun win sympathy for a couple facing events that bring out the best and the worst in them. The well-drawn characters, clever plotting and sting of social commentary in a tale of pride and property create a dark dystopia tale that seems to offer intermittently some hope for survival.