Concrete Utopia is a Lord of the Flies-style allegorical thriller about refugees, borders and the dangers of nativism, and it’s not very subtle about it.
Nonetheless, director Um Tae-hwa’s film (South Korea’s submission for this year’s Best International Feature Oscar) is as interested in post-apocalyptic suspense and action as it is in politics, thereby preventing it from devolving into turgid sermonizing.
The story of a natural catastrophe and the men and women forced to cope with its perilous aftermath, it may not break new ground, but its lack of originality is at least partially offset by its gripping depiction of intolerance and exclusion as impediments to survival.
Based on Kim Soongnyung’s webtoon Pleasant Outcast, Concrete Utopia (in theaters Dec. 8) provides no initial explanation for its calamitous earthquake, which in a prefacing aerial shot begets chaos that rolls through Seoul, decimating everything in its wake.
The next morning, civil servant Min-seong (Park Seo-joon) wakes beside his wife, nurse Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), in their Hwang Gung high-rise apartment complex—the only building that didn’t topple during the cataclysm. How and why Hwang Gung stayed upright while every surrounding structure collapsed is not worth pondering, as it’s merely the first of many details in Um and Lee Shin-ji’s script that raises eyebrows. What’s important is that Hwang Gung’s residents are now in dire straits thanks to minimal electricity, water, and supplies. Those on the outside who managed to live through this nightmare are in even worse shape—and eager to seek shelter in the city’s last intact dwelling.
To deal with this ruinous state of affairs, Hwang Gung’s inhabitants form a committee led by Geum-ae (Kim Sun-young) and, on the basis of the heroism he displayed by putting out a near-tragic fire, they elect Yeong-tak (I Killed the Devil and Squid Game’s Lee Byung-hun) as the community’s new ruling delegate.
A series of task forces are established, most notably the Anti-Crime Force led by Yeong-tak and Min-seong, whose purpose is to secure the building from invaders and to scour the surrounding lands for food, medicine and other useful items. At the same time, Myeong-hwa allows into the couple’s apartment an older woman and her grandson who previously lived at the nearby Dream Palace complex. Despite Min-seong viewing these interlopers warily—highlighted by his attempt to not share a can of coveted peaches with his new tenants, over his wife’s objections—Myeong-hwa treats them compassionately and, in doing so, sets herself apart from the majority of her neighbors.
While Hwang Gung quickly gets itself back on its feet under Yeong-tak’s stewardship, any stability is short-lived. Much of this is due to Yeong-tak, who swiftly reveals himself to be a fanatic whose fierce commitment to his compatriots involves demonizing outsiders as “cockroaches,” expelling them from the building, and violently repelling them when they strive to get back inside. Lee has ugly ideas about anyone who’s not part of his “family,” and so do his acolytes, who believe that their continued post-quake existence is a sign that they’re “chosen” people. Concrete Utopia begs to be read as a fable about ongoing real-world immigration crises. Mercifully, however, director Um eschews overt nods to current events, and his star’s excellent performance casts Yeong-tak as not only the embodiment of modern xenophobia but, also, as a prototypical cinematic villain driven by nefarious zealotry.
Peace and calm follow the mass expulsion of non-residents from Hwang Gung, although not everyone is OK with such cruelty, including Myeong-hwa, who’s soon helping others hide and care for outsiders in their cramped flats. Yeong-tak, on the other hand, doesn’t waste much time showing his true colors on a reconnaissance mission, which rattles his disciples and compels Min-seong to reconsider his allegiance to the delegate. Concrete Utopia fails to adequately dramatize Min-seong’s moral dilemma, part of which is the result of Park Seo-joon’s flat turn. Still, during these excursion sequences, director Um delivers suitably grand, haunting vistas of the annihilated metropolis, with Min-seong and his anti-crime brethren trudging across mountains of rubble, traversing plateaus comprised of overturned buildings, and crawling through tight passages and on top of debris and the frozen corpses of those who were unfortunate enough to be stranded in the winter cold.
Concrete Utopia affords illuminating flashbacks to the moment that the earthquake struck Seoul, with Min-seong struggling to rescue a woman pinned beneath a truck as the blast encroaches upon them both, and Yeong-tak confronting a resident at the Hwang Gung complex over a business arrangement that’s turned sour. Those backwards narrative glances reinforce what’s already been implied by the proceedings, and make clear that the biggest obstacle to this enclave’s continued survival is selfishness. On more than one occasion, outsiders mention the rumor that Hwang Gung is thriving because its occupants are eating their own, and the joke is that even though that’s not technically true—and Yeong-tak vilifies those very outsiders for partaking in that crime against humanity—their bigotry, and willingness to turn on their fellow citizens, is itself a form of cannibalism.
A brief radio report about an impending meteor shower (heard during Yeong-tak’s flashback) is the sole suggested explanation for the seismic activity that has left Seoul a wasteland. Concrete Utopia is similarly skimpy when it comes to its characterizations, with Min-seong, Myeong-hwa, and the rest imagined in two dimensions. More frustrating is that the film has nothing novel to say about mankind or society that hasn’t been articulated and dissected by countless disaster-movie predecessors, and its familiarity becomes more pronounced, and underwhelming, the closer it gets to its by-the-books finale of loss, sacrifice, epiphanies, and new beginnings. Rather than taking a nuanced or complex approach to its core issues, the material simply follows through on expected conventions, which goes some way toward sabotaging its early momentum and anxiety.
Lee makes for such a commanding baddie that it’s often easy to overlook the clichés littering Um’s visually well-composed frame. In the end, however, the film is a power-keg thriller that fizzles out instead of ending with a bang.