The Movie Waffler New Release Review - CONCRETE UTOPIA | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - CONCRETE UTOPIA

New Release Review - CONCRETE UTOPIA
When Seoul is destroyed by an earthquake, tensions rise around the city's one surviving apartment block.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Um Tae-hwa

Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Park Seo-joon, Park Bo-young, Kim Sun-young, Park Ji-hu, Kim Do-yoon

Concrete Utopia poster

In Europe it's generally recognised that the post-war social experiment of packing people into high rise apartment buildings was a failure. Many of the continent's most notorious tower blocks have been torn down, but plenty still remain, generally housing those on the lowest rungs of society. In many parts of the world tower blocks are still viewed as utopian rather than dystopian constructs. Concrete Utopia, South Korea's submission to the 2024 Oscars, opens with a montage that details that nation's relationship with high rise apartment blocks. In Korea it seems they're still aspirational, with citizens taking part in lotteries in the hopes of acquiring a much sought after home in the heavens.

Director Um Tae-hwa's film, adapted from a popular web comic, suggests that Korea may be reassessing its view of tower blocks. Like JG Ballard's High Rise, Cronenberg's Shivers and recent European dystopian dramas The Antenna and We Might As Well Be Dead, Concrete Utopia employs a tower block as a microcosm of society, exploring how easily its foundations can crumble under stress.

Concrete Utopia review

Like We Might As Well Be Dead, Concrete Utopia takes place in the aftermath of a catastrophe with survivors huddling together in the one apartment block left standing. Here it's a massive earthquake that has turned Seoul, and presumably much of the surrounding world, to rubble. Save that is for the Imperial Palace Apartments, which miraculously remains untouched. Initially it's a haven for survivors, but as resources become stretched the residents of the Imperial Palace decide they can only look out for themselves.

Hailed as a hero for putting out a fire, Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun) is viewed as a man with the sort of initiative and leadership qualities to keep the tower safe from outsiders (who become known as "cockroaches"). He's elected to the role of "Delegate," and it doesn't take long for this unassuming man to embrace his new role as a dictator. Taken under his wing is Min-seong (Park Seo-joon), whose wife, Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), grows increasingly uncomfortable with the coldness taking over her husband and her neighbours' descent into fascism.

Concrete Utopia review

There's very little material here that hasn't already been covered in the aforementioned movies with which Concrete Utopia shares its basic premise. With the surrounding area in ruins there are many aspects that are familiar from the Hollywood disaster movies of the 1970s, where society descends into chaos and only a few heroic types step up to do what's right. The difference here is that there are no heroes in this misanthropic drama. Well, I guess that depends on your perspective. Yeong-tak and Myeong-hwa certainly put their lives on the line in venturing out into the devastated landscape in search of much needed resources, but with the film acting as a blunt allegory for xenophobia it's impossible to view them in a heroic light. Of course, it's easy for the audience to moralise from the comfort of our still-standing cinema auditoriums or living rooms. Concrete Utopia forces us to ponder how we might deal with such a scenario. Would we risk our own family's lives to help strangers?

The moral ambiguity is lifted somewhat by a third act revelation that exposes the true villainy of a particular character. Kim Do-yoon enters the film as Do-gyun, a teenage girl who once resided in the building and is immediately accepted into the fold (a touch which strengthens any reading of Concrete Utopia as an allegory for Israel). But Do-gyun knows a secret that threatens to topple the established order, and the film takes on an intriguing sub-plot that really should have been introduced a lot earlier.

Concrete Utopia review

At two hours and 10 minutes, there are stretches of Concrete Utopia that drag due to their familiarity. It often feels like we're simply watching plot beats rehashed from dozens of existing post-apocalyptic, disaster and zombie movies. It's the presence of the outstanding Byung-hun that gets us through such patches. Resembling a Korean Mads Mikkelsen, he possesses the sort of face that can switch from vulnerability to malevolence in an instant, and his evolution from everyman to autocrat is the concrete and steel that holds this allegorical tale together.

Concrete Utopia is on UK/ROI VOD from April 1st.