An environmental disaster has rendered, seemingly, the entire world uninhabitable, with the last remnants of humanity clinging to a relic of the past, representing the final tatters of civilization and relative comfort. A cruel hierarchy takes shape, clearly delineating the haves from the have-nots, with the former becoming emboldened by the brute force required to maintain power and the perks that come with it while the latter grows resentful (and increasingly revolutionary) the longer their noses are pressed up against the glass. And all of this is meant to be read in baldly metaphorical terms, laying bare the lack of fairness in a system that separates those at the top from those at the bottom. That’s an oversimplified although not inaccurate distillation of Um Tae-hwa’s Concrete Utopia, a dystopian drama and South Korea’s official selection for Best International Feature at the 96th Academy Awards, but it could just as easily describe Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. The influence of the Bong film — which received a botched domestic release but still paved the way for the filmmaker’s ascension on the global stage — is felt all over the Um, but more damning are the ways in which the two films deviate. There’s a relentless reinvention to Snowpiercer, with the film constantly finding new ways to upend a linear premise and an innate sense of showmanship that enlivens the end of the world. By comparison, Concrete Utopia is overdetermined and dour; it announces its intentions early and often, and rarely deviates in ways that surprise or complicate our relationship with the film.
After a credit sequence assembled from news footage that functions as propaganda about the aspirational qualities of “apartment living” in Seoul, we’re thrust into the aftermath of a sweeping tragedy that has reduced the entire city — and potentially the entire planet, the scope of the calamity is unclear — to gray piles of smoldering rubble surrounding a lone surviving structure: a high-rise apartment building encircled by miles of decimation. The exact nature of the catastrophe remains vague — the implication is a massive earthquake, although there are oblique references to a meteor shower with the brief glimpses of the cataclysmic event in flashback depicted as Roland Emmerich-style mountains of flame and cascading destruction — but it has cut off Seoul from the rest of the world. Government, utilities, and access to abundant food and clean water are remnants of a recent past, yet, incredibly, the Hwang Gung Apartments still stand with little structural damage. For both its longtime residents as well as the hundreds of cold, terrified, survivors who have converged upon the building, it represents the only refuge in sight. But scarcity of resources and disdain for outsiders (for actual and imagined slights) has hardened the population into a near-unified position: the only lives that matter are those of official building residents. Everyone else can take their chances living amidst the debris.
An ad hoc governing body made up of the building’s wealthiest residents is created and led by the quietly intense Young-tak (Lee Byung-hun, who has spent the last two decades jumping between Hollywood dreck like the G.I. Joe franchise and Korean films like I Saw the Devil), who distinguishes himself by rushing into action to extinguish an apartment fire and is designated Resident Delegate. The first order of business is determining what to do with the huddled refugees camped out in the building to shelter from the extreme elements. Innate sympathy gives way to cold calculation and isolationism; there are too many mouths to feed and why should those who “earned” their way into the building needlessly subsist on smaller rations in order to sustain new arrivals; as is the case with nearly all capitalistic systems, not a moment is spared to acknowledge the role sheer luck played in Hwang Gung’s remaining erect while all neighboring buildings were brought down. Non-residents are spoken of in dehumanizing terms and are summarily kicked out of the building with the expectation that they will freeze to death during an especially inhospitable winter. All the while, a cult of personality spins up around Young-tak as he grows into the role of uncontested leader, leading a violent security detail that scavenges for supplies (with the militia receiving larger shares of rations for their efforts) and enforces order within the building, including rooting out outsiders being sheltered by residents. But Young-tak’s methods become increasingly punitive and his demeanor more unhinged, suggesting there may be more driving him than simply providing for the building’s residents.
Allegories about class warfare are practically South Korea’s chief export, and it’s all but impossible to watch Concrete Utopia and not view the events of the film in nationalistic terms; offering pointed commentary about jingoism and xenophobia, as well as what the role of wealthy countries is in the face of a humanitarian crisis. Um has an especially unforgiving view of Hwang Gung’s residents (serving as a microcosm of the bourgeoisie), who are quick to close ranks and fall in line behind a strongman who offers no long-term vision but ample targets to demagogue, including the old authoritarian standby of referring to undesirables as cockroaches. But the film begins in a place where the citizens of Hwang Gung, guided primarily by a desire to preserve their own quality of life, cheer on the banishment (and presumed death to starvation and exposure) of women and small children. Morally, we’re effectively starting at rock bottom and spend the entire film there, with even small acts of self-sacrifice and defiance of callous policies soundly quashed. Further, Concrete Utopia never offers a compelling counterpoint to Young-tak’s leadership. One can argue his decision-making is guided by self-preservation and paranoia, but food and medicine genuinely are limited and keeping the population alive during a crisis often requires making otherwise unforgivable decisions in the name of the “greater good.” The film attempts to muddy the waters the more it delves into Young-tak’s checkered past, but even then a certain inertia sets in and exposing a popular leader for being a hypocrite (or worse) begins to feel especially toothless.
Much of Concrete Utopia, then, is spent alternating between large-scale disaster movie spectacle — with the security force excavating digitally augmented locations in search of supplies and fending off armed rival tribes — and more intimate drama; the increasingly precarious house of cards that represents civilization wobbling as more sympathetic residents begin to recognize its inequities. But once it becomes clear where all this is heading, there is a faint “going through the motions” quality to the film, its capacity to shock becoming curiously neutered. The film even concludes with a dusty overture to building bridges instead of walls, which makes for a fine civics lesson but a pat moral. And through it all, Um sacrifices conventional thrills or ambitious stylistic swings for something more staid, as though the film’s sole objective were to hold up a mirror to reality. But man’s inhumanity toward the most vulnerable members of society is a soft target these days, and it’s dubious whether it warrants a response this po-faced and joyless.
DIRECTOR: Um Tae-hwa; CAST: Lee Byung-hun, Park Seo-joon, Park Bo-young, Kim Sun-young; DISTRIBUTOR: 815 Pictures; IN THEATERS: December 8; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 10 min.