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‘Concrete Utopia’ (review)

Concrete Utopia, South Korea’s nomination for Best Foreign Feature at the upcoming Academy Awards, is a tense thriller, a particularly honest class commentary, a leap forward for special effects work in the Korean cinema, and twenty minutes too long.

It feels extremely reminiscent of two previous Korean crossover hits: Parasite and Snowpiercer.  While the film doesn’t quite come up to the level of excellence of those two films, it is eminently worth watching and discussing in this space.

Concrete Utopia is a post-apocalyptic thriller where an unexplained cataclysm hollows out and destroys Seoul except for a single apartment complex in the city center.

As is common in films like this, the survivors form a society of their own until the tensions within the new society outpace the struggles from outside.

This is not a unique premise: several beloved George Romero films and HBO’s The Last of Us are working much the same ground, but the narrative advantage this film has over most works of its type is that while those stories often depict new societies that have evolved out of the enforced cruelty and prejudice of the world we live in, Concrete Utopia depicts the road to Hell being paved by the best intentions, one seemingly reasonable decision at a time.

Director Um Tae-hwa combines delicious suspense with slow burning rage as issues of immigration, resource scarcity, geopolitical conflict, and sustainability all find analogues in the claustrophobic outpost of Hwang Gung Apartments. Ordinary salarymen become increasingly cruel as conditions worsen and options narrow, but what’s subversive and interesting about the piece is that we can understand the callousness as a defense mechanism: the early days of the catastrophe hardened these people as generosity became a complication to survival.

Lee Byung-hun (I Saw the Devil, A Bittersweet Life) is excellent as Yeong-Tak, the man elected leader of the residents in the early days of the crisis. What begins as put upon stoicism in the face of constant catastrophe gradually morphs into silent menace as we learn more about what Yeong-Tak was doing before the crisis. He serves as an interesting mirror to Min-seong played by Park Seo-jun (Parasite): as we watch seemingly ordinary people reduced to their basic instincts he’s a man comfortable with violence and used to the world stepping on him, suddenly thrust into a role of adoration and leadership and secretly waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under him.

Where Concrete Utopia gets extremely interesting is its commentary of the relationship between religion, totalistic politics, and violence. The third act of the film depicts the Apartments’ descent into political violence against outsiders, designated “cockroaches”, with strong Judeo-Christian visual allegory: one of the Beatitudes is depicted as a family is led out for execution, doomed apartments are marked for raid with red paint in a visual callback to the Tenth Plague of Egypt from Exodus. This is mixed with public penance rituals for residents that are taken directly from Maoism, and political strategy that feels like an analogue for Stalinism.

I still keep coming back to the film’s final moments of cold comfort where a stained glass window and a moment of respite offer us a little hope that we can escape the cycle of resentment and violence that scarcity imposes upon us. That through faith in ourselves and our fellow man, we might be able to build a habitat of sanity for ourselves and our loved ones. Concrete Utopia is thunderous in its diagnosis of the problem, but merely whispers its prescription and all the while it denies the audience the solace of easy rationalizations and condemnations.

Recommended.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Byun Seung-min
Written by Tae-hwa Eom, Lee Shin-ji
Directed by Tae-hwa Eom
Starring Lee Byung-hun, Park Seo-joon, Park Bo-young

Concrete Utopia is playing in select theaters. 
For more details, visit  Concrete-Utopia-film.com
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