Like many big cities, Seoul, South Korea, is dotted with enormous apartment complexes, buildings that rise ten or more stories into the sky and house hundreds of families. For many Koreans, these apartments aren’t a path to homeownership, they are the home they seek to own, and there are both upscale and downscale apartment complexes, often adjacent to each other. When the unimaginable happens and there’s a massively destructive earthquake that levels Seoul, the residents of one high-rise are baffled that, somehow, their building is untouched.
That’s the starting point for the dark and rather depressing post-apocalyptic Korean-language thriller Konkeuriteu Yutopia (Concrete Utopia). The central characters are an appealing and earnest young couple Min-sung (Park Seo-joon), a civil servant, and Myung-hwa (Park Seo-joon), a nurse, along with Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun) who, after heroically running into a burning apartment to douse the flames, is elected The Delegate, head of the apartment community.
The problems arise immediately and are pretty standard fare for a post-apocalyptic thriller; lack of food and water requires armed parties to search the local area hoping to find a convenience store that hasn’t yet been looted, the residents of the community disagree on basic policies, and there are those dangerous “roaches” from outside their community who seek the shelter and safety of the complex. It parallels what this viewer figures is a typical post-apocalyptic path, starting with welcoming those in need to share in their resources to being overwhelmed by those from outside, to a grand conflict, to a strong policy of “Apartments are for the Residents!” enforced through varying levels of violence.
But how can people be so callous that they ignore starving children? What then the consequences if the children are secretly hidden and sheltered in the apartments of residents who don’t agree with the “residents only” policy? There’s an increasing level of Lord of the Flies tribalism that occurs, with an eventual – and rather shocking – denouement of the leaders and subsequent chaos. This is a brutal and sometimes bloody exploration of the collapse of society that asks questions about how we would balance our personal moral imperatives like “be kind to strangers” with the requirement to be selfish to ensure our own survival. And it’s not always very pretty.
While there are some touching moments and a particularly intriguing performance by Min-sung (Park Seo-joon) as the civil servant who has never aimed for the stars and is suddenly promoted to head of apartment complex security. He’s a gentle soul, but the requirements of his new role increasingly go against his better judgment and beliefs. His wife has similar reservations as the medical resource for the community, and the contrast between how the two of them resolve the dilemma is the heart of Concrete Utopia.
For all that, however, this Best Foreign Picture Oscar entry from South Korea is also quite similar to Lord of the Flies in that it’s both intriguing and appalling to watch. We want to root for the good guys, but are there any in this post-apocalyptic wasteland? How much can we forgive in the name of tribal survival as a viewer thrust into this hellscape? It’s not Mad Max, but make no mistake, Concrete Utopia takes place in a tough and chilling world where it really is dog eat dog, and where people are constantly faced with the decision of whether to be kind and generous or selfish in the interest of maximizing their individual chance to survive.
Worth noting are the extraordinary visual effects that create an entirely believable world of destruction. The post-quake world is entirely convincing and scary; imagine the ground buckling and changing by hundreds of feet up or down, then the enormous destruction of every building for as far as you can see.
But the destruction isn’t the center of Concrete Utopia, it’s all about the human heart and our innate desire to help others versus the more self-centered needs and requirements of a post-apocalyptic world. There’s a quasi-happy ending, but… it’s not very happy. Be prepared, but do watch this, it’s fascinating and bound to inspire some interesting, if dark conversations with your film friends.