You could say South Korea excels in two sides of the cinematic coin: there’s the breezy, hugely successful K-dramas that have overtaken the world, expertly written, acted and shot; and then there are the dystopian thrillers that take a more bleak, sardonic view of humanity. One need only mention Netflix’s Squid Game, or Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which surprised the world by bagging a Best Picture Oscar in 2020.
Like Parasite, S. Korea has high hopes for Concrete Utopia, its official entry to the Oscars this year. A disaster thriller that takes place after a civilization-leveling earthquake reduces the country to ruins, it concerns the surviving residents of one of the only remaining apartment complexes, Paradise Apartments, still standing after society has crumbled.
Lee Byung-hun is the seemingly brave and stoic apartment dweller who is elected “resident representative” after a flood of outsiders threaten to invade their condo complex and siphon off their precious resources. But we see the events unfold through the eyes of young couple Min-seong (Park Seo-joon), trained as a public servant, and his wife Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), a nurse.
Things are not so good in this utopia. The opening sequence shows how the desire for apartments led to lotteries and status-seeking upward mobility among South Korea’s middle classes. “Apartment life” became a byword for ease and comfort, just like our own “condo culture.”
As Byung-hun’s character gradually takes more authoritarian control over the apartment complex, and his anti-crime appointee Min-seong weighs the morality of more drastic measures being taken to “purify” their little oasis, the movie raises some interesting twists and dark turns.
Here’s what Korea’s dystopian thrillers do well: they posit scenarios in which the fragility of modern life is exposed, and society’s economic divide is highlighted in stark ways.
For Palace Apartments, this means “evicting” the squatters gathering around the complex lobby, despite the bone-chilling winter. (We see frozen corpses later as the Palace residents go on their food-gathering missions.) A sense of unity and purpose emerges among the Palace residents, as they flock around their new strong “leader” and try to construct a society that only serves their own needs — highlighted by a karaoke party that seems cruel and lavish next to the misery surrounding their lone apartment tower.
Indeed, morality has been tossed off the balcony in this new society: there’s no more “high” and “low”; only the survivors. “There’s no difference now between a murderer and a pastor,” one character says. “Everything’s been reset.”
Another thing Korean dystopian dramas do well: focus on characters’ back stories to gradually tease out how they ended up the way they are. We saw this in Squid Game and Parasite, and while Concrete Utopia is strong on writing and acting, it lacks those two other dramas’ crucial sense of humor, however dark. It’s just bleak.
Those who groove on The Last of Us (which also managed to inject humor and humanity into its bleak narrative) or Rebecca Ferguson’s Silo will find Concrete Utopia’s scenario somewhat familiar territory. There is something a little distancing, however, about our heroes in this story.
We never really get to the heart of people’s motivations in Concrete Utopia; rather we get what feel like wind-up characters let loose in a simulated world where worst-case scenarios lead to either amoral or ethical behavior. We, of course, would like to simply side with the good.
The closest the film gets to probing this moral ambiguity is when an outsider asks the nurse, Myeong-hwa, if the people inside Paradise Apartments are truly evil. She shrugs and says, “No. They’re just ordinary people.” Which of course is a much more chilling indictment of how wrong society can go, with just a simple twist.
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Concrete Utopia, from Columbia Pictures, opens Sept. 20.