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Concrete Utopia

In big cities the world over, housing is a high-priced commodity. Construction failed to keep up with demand, and as such, even modestly sized apartments seem like a luxury. However, as the Korean sci-fi movie “Concrete Utopia” points out, even a ritzy address can’t save you from the apocalypse.  

After decades of housing lotteries and booming costs, everything in Seoul (and perhaps the world) comes to a devastating halt when an outsized earthquake tears the city apart. Just about everything is in ruins and countless people are dead—except for the denizens of the Hwang Gung Apartments, a tightly guarded complex that must decide on whether to shelter non-resident refugees or send them to their deaths in the cold barren wasteland that was once the bustling city. The movie follows Min-sung (Park Seo-joon) and Myung-hwa (Park Bo-young), a young couple sometimes at odds on what the best course of action is during the end of the world, as well as the apartment’s designated leader, the mysterious Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun), who emerges from the crowd to decide the fate of this makeshift community but whom no one can really remember if he really lived there with his mother. 

Incidentally, in these lawless times, the residents retreat into making stricter rules: 1. Our apartments belong to the residents. Only residents may live here; 2. Residents must carry out their duties. Rations are distributed according to one’s contributions; 3. All activities in our apartment complex are based on the democratic consensus of the residents. Those who do not comply cannot live here. This extremism makes for some interesting quandaries as desperation seeps in and scarcity affects people’s behavior.  

Director Um Tae-hwa takes a darkly funny, sometimes tragic, view of the future. Even the title “Concrete Utopia” is something of a joke, as the concrete fortress that shelters its residents can only protect them from the elements and not from starvation—among other worries. The boundaries of this wretched future are brought to life in great grimy detail by the director and his creative team, from dirty worn-down jackets to figuring out the logistics of what happens when the water in the building stops running – which you may not want to know, but you will find out! The film shares a rather dystopian look of this future, one reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies” and its unraveling of civilization in the face of dire circumstances. Despite its bleak outlook, it is not entirely devoid of hope, which is how the movie and the apartment residents continue to soldier on towards survival. 

The highlight of the film belongs to the film’s trio of main characters, acting civil servant Min-sung, nurse Myung-hwa, and outsider Yeong-tak. As Min-Sung, Park Seo-jun pulls off an incredible job wrestling with his conscious behind wordless, wide-eyed expressions just as his wife, played by Park Bo-young, fights for the goodness of humanity and hopes it will prevail against the odds. Hers is the calm hope that keeps the film moving forward while everyone dithers with internal politics, a facet of the story made complicated by Lee Byung-hun’s shifty Yeong-tak, a complex character Um carefully builds over the course of events. 

Overall, “Concrete Utopia” is more ambitious than its execution, but nonetheless sustains its suspense with an emotional journey into the depths of what scarcity can do to humanity. Watching thinning food rations drive people to be their most selfish and foolish selves while holding on to the rules might be darkly funny, but to what end? To point out the hypocrisy of civilization? To demonstrate how apartment owners are less likely to share with the less fortunate? “Concrete Utopia” is an uncomfortable sci-fi thought exercise, but less deep than the caverns left behind by the movie’s earthquake. 

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a critic, journalist, programmer, and curator based in New York City. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center and a contributor to RogerEbert.com.

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Film Credits

Concrete Utopia movie poster

Concrete Utopia (2023)

Rated PG-13

130 minutes

Cast

Lee Byung-Hun as Yeong-tak

Park Seo-jun as Min-seong

Park Bo-young as Myeong-hwa

Kim Sun-young as Geum-ae

Park Ji-hu as Hye-won

Director

Screenplay

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