Concrete Utopia

After discovering that their Hwang Gung Apartment building is the only thing left standing in Seoul after a devastating earthquake, Myung-hwa (Bo-young Park) does not hesitate to bring in a mother and her young boy from the fallen Dream Palace apartments across the way, although her husband, Min-sung (Seo-joon Park, "Parasite"), questions it.  When the residents gather and decide they need a leader, chairwoman of the Hwang Gung Apartments Women’s Association Keum-ae (Sun-young Kim) says they need someone selfless, like Young-tak (Byung-hun Lee, "I Saw the Devil"), who had rushed in earlier to put out a fire in a first floor apartment.  The new Resident Delegate quickly establishes a rule that no outsiders be allowed into their “Concrete Utopia.”

Laura's Review: B

South Korea’s submission for the 2024 International Oscar is both a disaster movie and a Serlingesque exploration of human behavior in an apocalyptic situation.  Cowriter (with Shin-ji Lee)/director Eom Tae-hwa’s production is not as slick as some, scenes amidst rubble appearing stage bound, but he’s assembled a fine cast who turn over every facet of the human condition.

Since ‘The Shelter’ appeared on ‘The Twilight Zone’ in 1961, compassion versus survival has been an evergreen theme in popular culture, but Tae-hwa expands upon the idea with varying shades of gray and a structure which flashes back to revelatory details.  Just after Young-tak, who few seem to know much about, is elected Resident Delegate, a flashback reveals Min-sung trying to aid a woman caught beneath a bus.  He’s the last one to run as an after shock threatens.  Young-tak makes him head of the Anti-Crime Force, a position which will mean more rations for him and Myung-hwa, a boon for the outsiders she secretly continues to help, many of whom are squatting in a Hwang Gung apartment.  But what Min-sung sees outside in increasingly frigid temperatures gives him pause and when a resident accuses Young-tak’s people of murdering others for a loaf of bread, Myung-hwa begins to question things, including her own husband.  The arrival of Hye-won (Ji-hu Park), the daughter of an apartment owner who has battled her way back home, further complicates straining resident relations and she and Myung-hwa make a startling discovery that shatters a foundational belief of Hwang Gung residents.

Tae-hwa has larded his social study with action, violence and suspense, his climax a shocking series of discoveries and actions.   Seo-joon Park makes Min-sung a convincingly flawed hero, a good man who wavers in the face of his own survival, a nice contrast to Bo-young Park, whose character’s values never waver.  The actors navigate the marital issues this raises while maintaining a bond they return to in the final act.  Byung-hun Lee brings his character from unknown quantity to bold, confident leader, long held resentments fueling outrageous actions.  Support is solid across the board, many contributing elements to Tae-hwa’s societal tapestry.

“Concrete Utopia” may not have the artistry of 2020’s “Parasite,” but it sports a fine cast and goes beyond its post-apocalyptic genre trappings to mine thought-provoking drama.

Robin's Review: B

Lotte Entertainment and 815 Pictures open "Concrete Utopia" in NY and LA theaters on 12/8/23, wide on 12/15/23.