Korean cinema has long been fascinated by class distinctions. Parasite and Snowpiercer both leaned heavily into the fact that society is unfairly separated by social status. In Uhm Tae-Hwa’s dystopian drama Concrete Utopia the “haves and have-nots” delineation becomes a matter of where you live. An enormous earthquake has hit Seoul, flattening everything as far as you can see, except for one building. And it is the residents of this apartment complex who are pitted against the world and one another. Do they take in all the surviving outsiders and share their limited space and food? Or is it them against the world?
Early on in the film, they take a pragmatic approach, meeting as a group to talk about how to go forward. They decide that a leader is needed and choose Kim Young-tak (Lee Byung-hun, “Squid Game”, “Mr. Sunshine”) who days before ran into a burning apartment to douse a fire and save them all. That’s really all any of them know about him. But as it becomes clear that there is no outside help, and hoards of people show up looking for a place to live, and the little food they have is running out, they make the decision to cut themselves off from the outside world, erecting barriers and punishing anyone who has hidden non-residents inside.
Min-sung (Park Seo-joon, “The Marvels”, Parasite) and Myung-hwa (Park Bo-young), are a young couple living in the building. She’s a nurse with a lot of empathy and feels that they should be more open to helping those who have lost everything. He’s torn but goes with the us-or-them consensus. But when the team of scavengers he’s with kills someone while they’re out gathering food for the residents, it changes the way Myung-hwa sees him. And the way that Kim Young-tak has taken over and acts like a dictator makes her even more uncomfortable, leading her and a young apartment owner from outside who has found her way back to the compound to uncover who he really is.
Extremely well directed from a smart script, Uhm Tae-Hwa has crafted one of the best dystopian films in a while. The characters are very real, the situation, one you could imagine being in, the ethical dilemmas relatable. I heartily recommend this for a holiday cinema outing.
In theaters beginning Dec. 15.