Concrete Utopia is a disaster film, a social critique, and a warning against oppressive systems rolled into one well-shot, if tonally erratic, thriller.
Um Tae-hwa’s Concrete Utopia (2023) is a weird beast. It’s a social satire in the style of Bong Joon-Ho, with a disaster premise reminiscent of a Roland Emmerich production, all with the intention of lambasting fascism in the vein of Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. One’s enjoyment of the film will most likely rely on one’s ability to navigate through all of its concepts and tones.
Concrete Utopia takes place mostly in the Imperial Palace Apartment buildings, the only standing structures left in Seoul, South Korea after an earthquake of biblical proportions. The residents of these apartments begin to make rules and establish a crude form of government when survivors begin flocking to the buildings hoping for food, water, and shelter. When the residents elect a representative, Yeong-tak (Lee Byhung-hun) as their quasi-leader, conflicts begin to brew between the residents and the “outsiders,” and between the residents themselves, as Yeong-tak grows more tyrannical.
The film only uses the earthquake as a premise rather than a touchstone, instead choosing to explore human behavior and emotions in a way that feels more like a drama than an end-of-the-world disaster flick. Tae-hwa relies on his actors to evoke a sense of understanding from the viewer. Byung-hun is the showstopper in this regard. His Yeong-tak (referred to as “Mr. Delegate” by many of the residents) at first comes across as frivolous and unsure of himself, but quickly grows into a monster. His eyes carry joy, sadness, and rage as he continues down the path to dictatorship. His comedic facial expressions as he accumulates more power reflect that of a gleeful child, clearly commenting on how easy (and perhaps even joyful) it feels to gain power.
Though he starts as a noble man, putting out a fire on the first floor early in the film, the audience sees what the attainment of power can do to a person. His past actions (communicated in flashbacks) reveal a certain complexity to the character that the actor conveys convincingly. Park Seo-joon and Park Bo-young portray Min-sung and Myung-hwa, respectively. This young couple, recently moved into the apartment complex, act as the gentle protagonists, and both exude enough positivity for the audience to latch onto them.
Aside from the performances, Concrete Utopia has going for it a unique array of genres. Disaster, drama, thriller, social satire, comedy. All these and more could apply depending on how one views the film, and what kind of experiences the viewer carries with them. Tae-hwa films each scene with a daring confidence, going from effective and efficient use of CGI for the earthquake scenes, fluid camera movement in the action scenes (mostly in the second half), to unorthodox framing and blocking of his actors in some of the more comedic moments.
This genre-blending could be the film’s biggest strength or its most glaring flaw. While each tone is well-executed, it would be fair to say there might be too many to adequately tell this story. The movie deals with heavy topics like tyranny, death, and destruction, which might make the comedic moments feel forced. On the other hand, the social satire bits may undercut some of the more exciting tension viewers might be expecting from a film that prominently features a natural disaster.
Concrete Utopia ultimately tells the origin story of fascist systems, while also paining a rather bleak picture of humanity. The ending scene, however, may leave the audience with just a bit of hope for the future. After experiencing a great loss as a destroyed stain-glass window featuring a prominent religious image shines down upon Myeong-hwa, she reflects on the “ordinary people” of the Imperial Palace Apartments who were forced into a terrible situation. The film asks its audience to reflect on the horrible ways oppressive systems have caused unspeakable harm. Its campiness invites us to see how silly our insignificant squabbles can be in times of crisis. While this campiness may not fully mesh with the film’s darker moments, Concrete Utopia feels smarter and more focused on real issues and themes than many other films of its ilk.
Concrete Utopia will be released in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on December 8 and nationwide from December 15, 2023.