Concrete Utopia

David Cunningham

Writers Tae-hwa Eom, Lee Shin-jiKim and Soong-nyung

Director Tae-hwa Eom

Concrete Utopia follows Sam Goldwyn’s prescription being a movie that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.

In the present-day, Seoul is reduced to rubble following a titanic earthquake. The only building left standing is the Imperial Palace Apartments. However, the residents have little opportunity to celebrate their good fortune having to learn how to survive in their new devastated environment. Not only must they scavenge for scarce resources in an unusually brutal winter they also face the moral dilemma of how to deal with other survivors seeking shelter in the apartments.

In a J G Ballard story, the characters might learn to embrace the new reality brought on by the catastrophe but in Concrete Utopia they cling to pre-crisis values which may no longer be relevant. This allows authors Tae-hwa Eom, Lee Shin-jiKim and Soong-nyung to explore contemporary social attitudes towards displaced people in need of support. The approach is apparent from the opening scenes- a montage of film footage tracing how housing moved from being a simple source of shelter into a means of displaying social status.

As with unwanted immigrants, those seeking shelter are rapidly demonised; referred to as ‘outsiders’ and considered unworthy of aid. There is a sort of nimbyism used to justify the brutal decision – the residents had to work hard to afford their homes and see no reason to share. There is a sense of settling old grievances as some of those now categorised as outsiders used to regard themselves as socially superior to the apartment residents.

The social satire continues with the residents debating whether the people who, prior to the earthquake, owned their apartments should be considered socially superior to those who rented. It is surprising the authors do not go all the way and have the rule-making president of the women’s association evolve into a full-blown propagandist; but then there are already three strong characters whose actions make social points.

Lee Byung-hun brings a frightening intensity to the antihero Yeong-tak (room 902- in the manner of 12 Angry Men the residents are initially referred to by their apartment number rather than name). He is elected resident leader and it seems a logical choice as he is fearless and devoted to the wellbeing of other people. In his first appearance Yeong-tak risks his life putting out a fire and is always in the front-line during confrontations. But he is driven by a warped sense of entitlement-having been cheated in the past he feels an extreme approach is justified and will go to any length to conceal a dark secret.

Nurse, Myeong-hwa from room 602 (Park Bo-young) is the film’s moral conscience and takes an opposite viewpoint from Yeong-tak believing the good fortune of the apartment residents obliges them to help the less fortunate.

Myeong-hwa’s husband Min-sung (Park Seo-joon) is conflicted. He aspires to his wife’s compassionate viewpoint but is aware he may lack the resolution to back up his opinions with actions. He suffers from survivor’s guilt, his hands literally blood-stained from when his courage failed during the earthquake, and he saved himself by abandoning someone in need.

Concrete Utopia realistically, even remorselessly, shows the impact of the decisions made by the residents. On a scavenging mission the residents encounter the frozen bodies of the outsiders who were expelled. Yet director Tae-hwa Eom (who contributed to the screenplay) constantly draws an absurd, dark humour from the crisis. “It’s my first earthquake!” proclaims a survivor while reading disaster management manuals. The key dramatic moment when those considered outsiders are to be expelled turns into farce as no-one can operate the loudspeaker to make an announcement.

The atmosphere throughout the movie is grim- the colour scheme rarely varying from shades of grey. The sense of a world turned upside down is superbly captured as survivors enter a collapsed block of flats lying in its side so the wall has become the floor and the camera must tilt to give the correct viewing angle.

Concrete Utopia does not disappoint as a conventional ‘disaster’ movie in particular the stunning sequence of Min-sung dodging death by strapping himself into a car and ‘riding’ the shockwave caused by the earthquake.

With strong special effects and characterisation combined with daring social commentary Concrete Utopia is a disaster movie which is far from being a disaster.

ConcreteUtopia is on digital platforms 1 April.

The Reviews Hub Score

Far from a disaster

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