Sometimes you read the premise of a film and can tell immediately where it’s going to go and what kind of thematic ideas it has on its mind. With a premise that sounds like Snowpiercer but in an apartment complex, Concrete Utopia sees the world struck by a massive earthquake, leaving humanity nowhere else to take shelter except one lone apartment building in the city of Seoul – Hwang Gung Apartments.
And just like how Snowpiercer asks us to accept that all of humanity lives on a train, with no hope of life outside, this film does not address whether other countries were hit by the earthquake. We don’t know or see anything beyond Seoul. All we know is that one building survived and nothing else. It’s as clear-cut and obvious of a metaphor as you can get. So, what happens when humanity is living in hell and fighting over paradise?
As expected, it’s absolute chaos. Rules are implemented and lines are drawn, as the residents of the apartment band together to prevent everyone else from coming in, while trying to create a new utopian society for themselves. Among the residents are Min-seong (Park Seo-jun) and Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young) as a young couple who bought the apartment in hopes of one day starting a family. With Min-seong being a public servant and Myeong-hwa being a nurse, they waste no time to try to help anyone in need, but things change once the “residents-only” policy is enforced, and the community elects their own delegate, Young-tak (Lee Byung-hun, from I Saw the Devil) to lead.
It is during this first hour that Concrete Utopia shines with a sharp sense of satirical humor. Factions are formed, each with their own respective roles, and the people of Hwang Gung take pride in what they’ve accomplished, so much so that they would film themselves as if they were a commercial or a propaganda ad. Hidden under these scenes lies some nuanced commentary about isolationism and nationalist pride, but as the film progresses, it becomes less interested in dissecting its premise. As it adds a few twists and turns in the script, Concrete Utopia begins to rely on thriller and melodramatic tropes to keep its runtime going.
This makes for a rather straightforward take on the dystopian and classist themes we’ve seen countless times before in other films. It lacks the messiness of Snowpiercer, the universality of Lord of the Flies, and the hopelessness of Parasite. To say Concrete Utopia is a gamechanger to the human nature conversation is like saying The Day After Tomorrow is a mandatory viewing for “climate change cinema.” But just like with The Day After Tomorrow, you can enjoy Concrete Utopia for what it is – a mainstream blockbuster showing the ugliness and selfishness of human beings when they become desperate to survive.
Though some plot points can certainly feel shoehorned in at times, they make way for fantastic set pieces and an unhinged performance by Lee Byung-hun, as we learn more about his character and how he got to his position. As for our lead couple, director Um Tae-hwa maintains a compelling emotional core through their internal struggles. Min-seong begins to lose his morals and tread far away from what a public servant should be doing. Meanwhile, Myeong-hwa questions everything and everyone around her when her kindness for all people is being viewed as an act of betrayal and disloyalty; it’s an astounding performance by Park Bo-young.
Despite handling familiar themes, Um Tae-hwa pulls through thanks to his direction and technical execution. With appealing set designs and a large ensemble cast all giving fierce performances, he has made an epic, expensive-looking production. Even with a long, dragged-out middle section, the film has enough fun with its situation in the beginning and knows when it’s time to stop laughing and look at the consequences. With a somewhat hopeful ending to an incredibly bleak look at humanity, Concrete Utopia may not have something new to say but it has a lot of heart and soul in the telling.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.