[Fantastic Fest 2023] CONCRETE UTOPIA -- A Stunning and Nuanced Disaster Epic for a Materialist World
Review by Erin M. Brady
The King James Bible translates Matthew 22:39 as “And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This verse essentially means that whatever you do to your neighbor, whether it’s through words or actions, needs to be something you want to have happen to you. This is especially true in times of unexplainable hardship, and while it is never outright stated, it is arguably the core idea of Um Tae-hwa’s disaster epic Concrete Utopia. If you do not know and love your neighbor as an equal, damnation will eventually come for you.
The film centers around the various residents of the Hwang Gung Apartments in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. The apartment building was somehow completely undamaged, making it a safe haven for survivors, much to the dismay of its residents. One such resident, Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun), is voted to take charge due to his past advocacy against unwanted development on the apartment grounds. Unfortunately, his leadership successes come at a devastating cost, especially after nurse Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young) fails to convince her husband, Min-seong (Park Seo-joon), that something is wrong.
It would be remiss to ignore the stunning visual work that brought its destroyed Seoul landscape to life. One scene, in particular, will likely go down as one of the best ever made in the subgenre. Cinematographer Cho Hyung-rae crafted stunning shots in this grey, desolate, and horrifying environment, even in parts where the integration of CGI green screen and physical sets isn’t perfect.
However, these sequences aren’t the main draw of the film, and much is still left to the imagination as to what actually happened. Choosing to center the movie around the aftermath of the earthquake is not a particularly unique direction – often, disaster movies highlight the degradation of the human condition as proof that we’re all capable of horrific violence under the right circumstances. How these characters degrade certainly is. They never become cartoonishly evil or desperate, as is usually the case with similar stories. They simply act like people wanting to maintain the order they previously had in their lives, no matter what they do to regain it.
Herein lies the film’s biggest strength: nuance. There is, for lack of a better term, a concrete reason behind every decision made by its ensemble. Lee Byung-hun’s performance is arguably the best example of this, as Yeong-tak’s rise to power within the complex coincides with a much darker secret he’s hiding. When this secret is revealed, it is juxtaposed with scenes of what is supposed to be a joyous celebration of survival. This is the perfect example of who Yeong-tak is as a character: someone who knows of his sins but will continue to reap the benefits they have given him. Audiences can judge him and the rest of these characters, but not without wondering if they themselves are capable of acting the exact same way.
Um’s direction, along with the script he co-wrote alongside Lee Sin-ji, exemplifies this overarching idea in every scene. In this regard, it is likely the most realistic depiction of what would happen if a disaster movie came to life, right down to the minute details of how its characters exist in this new world. If the world they existed in valued property and materialism above all else (a detail outlined to us in the opening credits), it’s only reasonable that these attitudes would carry over into times of crisis.
Concrete Utopia is both pessimistic and optimistic about the state of humanity in extreme events. There is never any reason for why the apartment complex was spared, nor do we ever get any answers as to why larger help hasn’t come. However, these aren’t questions you are supposed to ask about this film. Instead, you’re supposed to ask yourself if you are as morally righteous as you think you are, the film challenging the audience at every revelation and development. By fully immersing viewers into the lives of its ensemble, it forces you to think about how you treat your neighbors, both figuratively and literally. Will you be the one helping outsiders survive in difficult conditions, or will you be the one throwing objects at them to get them to leave? Can you be sure of your answer?
Concrete Utopia is screening at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.