“If you’re alive, you can live.”
“Concrete Utopia,” South Korea’s entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the Academy Awards, is not what you’d expect given their previous entries. Director Um Tae-hwa presents a large-scale global feature — an apocalyptic parable that delves deep into themes of class dynamics, humanity and, above all, morality.
The film begins with a massive earthquake that demolishes most of Seoul. In the wake of the disaster, the audience finds out that protagonist Min-sung (Park Seo-jun) and his wife Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young) are situated in the last remaining apartment complex amid a field of ruins. To ensure their survival, the residents elect Kim Young-tak (Lee Byung-hun) as delegate to oversee the apartments and deal with their most critical issue: the encroachment of “cockroaches” — non residents living in the detritus of the apocalypse — seeking to join the complex.
As the story progresses, tensions arise, the threat of outside invasion draws closer and the promise of safety becomes uncertain when it becomes apparent that the delegate is harboring hidden secrets, including his true nature. Faced with these challenges, Min-sung and Myeong-hwa must help the community and secure their own survival — at devastating costs.
“Concrete Utopia” features incredible set design that immerses viewers in this post-apocalyptic world, instilling in the audience the same fear that the characters experience when they are traveling through the ruins of their city. The sheer scale of the ruins overwhelms the characters, adding to the overall intensity of the film. The film skillfully captures the striking contrast between the cold, gloomy and gray atmosphere of the post-apocalyptic world and the warm lighting of the pre-apocalyptic world.
The present-day setting is a grim, unforgiving landscape that perpetuates the dread and unease of the residents. Conversely, flashbacks have a colorful vibrancy that, at first glance, seems inviting given the current circumstances. However, these are quickly revealed to be deceptive visual elements when pieces of the past are unveiled, with much of their content failing to suggest that the past is any different from the dreadful present.
While the film’s sets and score, composed by Kim Haewon, surely offer some tense moments, the lack of characterization and a lackluster plot dilute the potential intensity.
The film’s primary shortcoming is its failure to build well-defined characters that would otherwise establish a strong emotional connection between the audience and the importance of the relationships that evolve in response to the earthquake. The opening makes it clear that apartment culture is at the very heart of the film, and the interconnectedness of its residents is the one piece of security against the rest of the world. Rather than focusing on why the audience should care for the survival of the residents and their community, however, “Concrete Utopia” dedicates a significant portion of its lengthy two hour runtime showcasing the extent of the disaster, the prevailing terror and the intricacies of managing a post-apocalyptic society. The overemphasis on brutality, violence and destruction overshadows the film’s potential to accentuate any positive shred of humanity that justifies the defense of the apartment complex and its constituents.
Apart from fully fleshed out characters, the special effects of “Concrete Utopia” often appear cartoonish, which, while occasionally effective, also take away from the weight of the story and its themes. The remarkable shot of the devastating earthquake is quickly diminished by the garish CGI tricks that follow. At times, the unnecessary use of special effects indicates that the film was more invested in its technical feats rather than its actual story.
Despite its clear flaws, the film raises important concerns as the potential for a catastrophic event looms due to irreversible climate change. The apocalyptic narrative revisits questions that have long been explored by psychologists regarding the pliancy of human nature: How do certain situations unearth humanity’s darkest instincts? The film blurs the line between the morality of the residents and the supposed brutality of the “cockroaches,” suggesting that perhaps there’s only one thing worse than the apocalypse — ourselves.