A Human Spin on the Disaster Movie

Most modern disaster movies are rather cheesy—big, special effects spectacles that are an excuse to showcase lots of destruction and action. Concrete Utopia, a South Korean disaster movie, has some of that, but really focuses more on what comes in the immediate aftermath. First, the film grabs your attention with a massive earthquake leveling Seoul. Everything is destroyed as far as the eye can see… except for one single apartment building right in the middle.

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It’s a premise that could, at that point, go any number of ways. It could be The Raid. It could be Assault on Precent 13. It could be Independence Day. but filmmaker Um Tae-hwa decides to go totally real with it. Sure, there’s action and violence along the way, but the main focus is the human decisions made by the residents of this building. Do they let more people in? Who deserves to be there? And all along the way, you can’t help but ponder what you would do in this situation.

The main characters, though there are many, are Min-seong (Park Seo-joon) and Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), a husband and wife who, almost without warning, find themselves in prominent places in the hierarchy of the building. He runs security, she helps with health, and all of it is controlled by Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun), a headstrong man who arrives under less than clear circumstances.

At first residents of the building let in other survivors, trying to be as accepting as possible. However, as resources dwindle, those sentiments quickly change and instead, a more militaristic rule is followed. Things seem fine for a while until the violence starts. And the lying. And in each and every scene, you aren’t quite sure what each character is going to do.

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It’s all riveting though, especially as we see the characters start to change and mysteries get solved. There’s also fantastic world-building taking place in the story, as the residents go on supply runs and see how everyone else in Seoul is living.

What kept occurring to me in Concrete Utopia is that we never see the government. We never see any soldiers. There are no clear-cut heroes or villains. It’s just completely slice of life and matter of fact about this impossible-to-fathom, devastating situation. Surely there are people out in this world trying to figure out the bigger picture stuff but Concrete Utopia is all about the smaller picture. It challenges us, not anyone else.

The result is a film that’s intense and powerful, but without ever losing its propulsive entertainment value. We consider our own morality as the characters shatter or solidify theirs, and in the end, you just want to spend more time in this world. Which is kind of wild. In disaster movies, normally you just want to see everyone get back to normal. In Concrete Utopia, you just want to watch how it all gets figured out.

Concrete Utopia played Fantastic Fest 2023 this week and is the South Korean entry for Best International Feature for the upcoming Academy Awards. It’ll be released in the U.S. later this fall.

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