REVIEW | ‘Concrete Utopia’ wrecks and shocks, revealing the inhumanity amid disasters
From being the central plot in the supernatural superhero series Uncanny Counter 2 to a story arc in the vigilante show Taxi Driver, KDrama fans have long been informed that owning an apartment unit is a big deal in South Korea - whether to keep up with appearances or being everyone’s end-goal in hustling. It is no surprise then that its official Oscar submission for Best International Feature Film, Concrete Utopia, revolves around the residents of the solely standing apartment building after a devastating earthquake in Seoul.
But instead of being a derivative of Hollywood disaster films like San Andreas which were more often than not, disastrous, Concrete Utopia follows the footsteps of Academy Awards 2020 Best Picture Parasite by expertly mashing it with societal commentary. This time the Korean parasites are referred to as cockroaches.
On the other hand, outsiders see the residents of Imperial Palace Apartments Building 103 as cannibals, which can be taken figuratively. While there are no zombies here on a train en route to Busan, the real villains are flesh-and-blood humans without any paranormal power, overwhelmed by survival instincts and greed.
Still, the film shows that amid a community’s inhumanity, humanity still exists. Min-seong (Park Seo-joon), a public servant, and his nurse wife Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young) attempt to bring a sense of normalcy to the apartment under the leadership of charismatic “resident delegate” Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun).
PSJ stans may also notice that the actor, who is set to appear in Marvel Studios’ The Marvels, has a role far different from the headstrong characters he played in Itaewon Class and What's Wrong with Secretary Kim. Park carries the needed subtlety in conveying a pragmatic husband, albeit with confusing loyalties.
The same can be said with actress Park Bo-young of Strong Girl Bong-soo fame. Casting her as a compassionate nurse with good detective skills highlights her acting range. Kudos also to the makeup and costume teams for toning down the appearances of these Hallyu stars.
Fans of dystopian films may see similarities in themes already shown in The Walking Dead series and even a plot point in The Mist, also helmed by the zombie series' first season director Frank Darabont. The latter also mirrors the scenario of strangers confined in one space dealing with catastrophes and dangers, both outside and inside. There is a risk for non-casuals to find the twists clichéd and unoriginal.
In the third act, Concrete Utopia shifts into a murder mystery. Director Um Tae-hwa (Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned) shows he is a master at building tension.
Based on the webtoon Pleasant Bullying, Concrete Utopia may not appear as revolutionary in the eyes of genre fans but its societal commentary is enough to keep viewers engrossed. It again presents the question of whether we have to lose our humanity to survive.
South Korea also shows that it has the CGI capabilities to compete with Hollywood while not dismissing character development to a fault. Too bad the Philippines, which is no stranger to disasters - from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, to storm surges - can only watch a VFX-heavy foreign film that can easily resonate with us.
Concrete Utopia is showing in Philippine cinemas starting Wednesday, Sept. 20.