South Korean cinema has its fair share of disaster movies, from ‘Ashfall’ to others like ‘Emergency Declaration,’ ‘Pandora’ and ‘Tidal Wave.’ Joining the list of ever-growing disaster movies is ‘Concrete Utopia.’
Based on the second part of Kim Soongnyung’s webtoon ‘Pleasant Bullying,’ the movie opens with a bang – both literally and figuratively. An establishing shot of a massive earthquake takes down the buildings in Seoul. If you can look past its spotty CGI, what follows next matters the most.
The earthquake part is like an appetizer compared to what happens later in the disaster’s aftermath. All buildings have collapsed except for the Hwang Gung apartment complex. It somehow miraculously survived the earthquake, leaving the Hwang Gung the last building standing.
From here, we are introduced to Min-Seong (Park Seo-Joon), a former public servant who lives in one of the apartment blocks with his nurse wife, Myeong-Hwa (Park Bo-Young). Following the earthquake, they are among the luckiest ones to be alive. They are hoping for a rescue team to arrive soon.
But as time goes by, they are clearly on their own, as do the rest of the Hwang Gung apartment complex residents. At first, there are survivors from different places seeking temporary shelter, including a mother and her little girl staying at Min-Seong and Myeong-Hwa’s apartment for the time being.
Then comes the reality check. The increasing influx of survivors coming to their apartment buildings begins to worry the Hwang Gung residents. With limited resources and food supplies, there is no way they can keep retaining them in the long run. The solution?
The participating residents in the community wanted someone reliable to step up as their representative of the Hwang Gung apartment complex to evict the outsiders. They agree to elect Kim Yeong-Tak (Lee Byung-Hun) since they are impressed with his bravery earlier in the movie after putting out a fire in one of the apartment blocks.
Everything goes well, albeit with a few hiccups when they must go the hard way to force the outsiders out of their property. Outsiders or non-residents are labeled as “cockroaches”. And Yeong-Tak is willing to do whatever it takes to protect his home and the Hwang Gung apartment complex, even if he has to kill people.
Co-writer and director Um Tae-Hwa, who last directed ‘Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned’ in 2016, layered the story beyond the confines of the disaster-movie genre. The genre itself served as a backdrop and metaphorical context that explores the dark side of human nature. It’s about how far one would go to safeguard his or her home and family in the name of survival.
Humans are inherently selfish, and Um Tae-Hwa, who adapted the screenplay alongside Lee Sin-Ji, doesn’t shy away from depicting the residents of the Hwang Gung apartment complex as such.
The movie first showcased them as one big, supportive community as they do their parts in keeping everything in order. Every resident has their own priorities, from the likes of handling maintenance to rationing food supplies. Tae-Hwa effectively incorporated a mix of quirky and pitch-black comedy in the movie’s first half as we witness how the residents set their rules and manage the ongoing crisis. They are like living in their own world.
But in a crisis like this, it was just a matter of time before a gradual sense of desperation and hopelessness kicked in. The tension even escalates as things begin to turn upside down. Dark secrets emerge, and there are backstories, with one of them hitting hard since it revolves around the country’s topical issue of the housing crisis. This is where Tae-Hwa morphed from its satirical dark-comedy route to an unsettling, psychological thriller.
‘Concrete Utopia’ benefits from a superb cast, with Park Seo-Joon perfectly typecast as the timid protagonist, Min-Seong. We learn about him as the movie goes on, and as increasingly desperate times call for desperate measures, we see his subsequent character arc forcing him to adapt to certain situations. Park Bo-Young brings a subtle touch to her role as the sensible and compassionate Myeong-Hwa.
But it was Lee Byung-Hun who excelled the most as Kim Yeong-Tak. First depicted as a loner of sorts before becoming the elected representative of the Hwang Gung residents, he begins to show his true color. Lee’s chameleon-like acting is no doubt one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in his illustrious career.
The movie may have clocked at 130 minutes, but it doesn’t feel overlong or heavy-handed, thanks to Tae-Hwa’s confident pacing and crafty direction. ‘Concrete Utopia’ is a testament that even in a genre as cliched and oft-told as a disaster movie, it can still overcome its familiarity by giving it a thought-provoking twist with relatable themes, intriguing storytelling, and solid acting all around.