Movie review: 'Concrete Utopia' more than a disaster flick

Fred Hawson

Posted at Sep 23 2023 10:44 AM

Park Seo-joon plays Min-sung, a family man struggling for his family’s survival in 'Concrete Utopia.' Handout
Park Seo-joon plays Min-sung, a family man struggling for his family’s survival in 'Concrete Utopia.' Handout

A major destructive earthquake hit Seoul, and practically all the buildings in the city have collapsed. The only apartment building left standing was Huang Gung, so all the surviving residents of neighboring apartments want to seek shelter in it. With the problem of security and food looming ahead, the residents of Huang Gung met together to organize themselves in the face of this issue -- should they evict outsiders (whom they called "cockroaches") or not? 

When a fire broke out in one of the apartments, a quiet man named Kim Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun) took the lead to charge into the burning room to put out the fire. Because of this, the other residents all voted unanimously Yeong-tak to be their leader, giving him the honorific title of Mr. Delegate. Yeong-tak chose a young public servant named Min-sung (Park Seo-joon) as his right-hand, to the dismay of Min-sung's nurse wife Myeong-wah (Park Bo-young). 

The earthquake was of a magnitude deadly enough to level a modern city like Seoul, and the special visual and sound effects certainly delivered the goods in this aspect. The chaotic post-apocalyptic landscape made for an ominous backdrop for the human drama unfolding. There are widely-shot scenes of mass destruction that evoke agoraphobia or acrophobia, as there were several tightly-shot scenes of narrow crawlspaces that provoke claustrophobia. 

The ambiguous questions of ethics and problematic moral decisions of the survivors make this an intensely thought-provoking watch. We identify with Min-sung as he was caught between the fanaticism of Yeong-tak and the compassion of Myeong-wah. We've seen survival movies before, but as written and directed by Uhm Tae-hwa, this film was as much as a sociological study and a crime mystery, as it was a psychological drama and a disaster epic. 

This film was recently named as the entry of South Korea to the race for Best International Film at the next Oscar Awards, which should attract more viewers to go check it out. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."