In case you missed the memo, South Korea isn’t just good at producing heart-fluttering romantic dramas; the country is also a prodigy at post-apocalyptic thrillers. Perhaps because the capital city is situated just a few miles from the border with a northern neighbor constantly threatening to rain nuclear Armageddon upon it, South Korean filmmakers have learned to unleash their sublimated fears onto their stories; from Train to Busan to #Alive, from Exit to Flu, more disasters have visited Korean cities than Godzilla has made trips to Tokyo.
But the social commentary doesn’t get more pointed than it does in director/co-writer Um Tae-hwa’s Concrete Utopia. Loosely based on the hit webtoon “Pleasant Bullying,” Concrete Utopia begins with a world-ending earthquake flattening Seoul…except for one apartment block. Out of all the CGI-rendered rubble that surrounds it, the Hwang Gung apartments stand improbably intact.
Like a beacon, the residential high-rise attracts desperate outsiders. But the residents soon come to label the refugees “cockroaches”—undesirables who are a strain on the apartment’s space and resources. The legal tenants then coldheartedly vote to evict these outsiders, declaring that “Our apartments belong to the residents!”
The homeowners soon set up a rudimentary system of self-government. After displaying extraordinary valor extinguishing a fire that could have caused catastrophic structural damage, an unassuming tenant named Young-tak (Lee Byung-hun) is selected to serve as the head of the task force which maintains peace and order, as well as to lead a foraging unit that will gather supplies from the surrounding decimated areas.
Pretty soon, the neighborly bachelor—who, by the way, has a checkered past that the movie will reveal in an ironic flashback—soon morphs into a determined and charismatic leader. And what starts as a democracy established by bickering homeowners devolves into a fascist authority. Think of it as Lord of the Flies meets a co-op board.
If there is one thing to recommend about Concrete Utopia, it is Lee Byung-hun’s riveting performance. Clearly relishing the opportunity to shed his good-guy K-drama persona, Lee is magnetic as a complex villain, a walking volcano with reservoirs of violence simmering under his half-savior, half-creep façade. Under such extreme circumstances, it’s no wonder young public servant Min-sung (Parasite breakout and Itaewon Class heartthrob Park Seo-joon) comes under Young-tak’s thrall, even as his bleeding-heart nurse of a wife (Park Bo-young) distrusts the self-styled leader intensely.
Concrete Utopia carries the idea of a basic democracy descending into a Gestapo-like dictatorship with easy grace during the first two-thirds of its running time, blending keenly observed commentary about the dark human impulse towards tribalism with some chuckle-inducing parody of the communal tendencies of its neighbor to the north. Slogans are lustily cheered, toilet hygiene is taught like a beginner’s-level language class, and rule-breakers are forced to denounce themselves in public. There’s even a karaoke celebration where Young-tak isn’t above shimmying to a song number.
It's when Concrete Utopia turns into a police procedural in its third act dedicated to unearthing Young-tak’s deep, dark secret that the film starts to lose its focus. The whole subplot feels like a concession to the demands of personal drama, when cataloguing broader social ills is what the film had been doing quite proficiently up to that point. Count on Lee to pull the whole thing together with his chilling performance, but the detour into murder-mystery feels like a wobble in Concrete Utopia’s solid foundations.
Concrete Utopia, South Korea’s official submission to the 2024 Academy Awards’ international feature film race, will be holding sneak previews in cinemas on Monday and Tuesday, September 11 and 12. The film opens nationwide on Wednesday, September 20.
Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures