Ninety-seven times out of 100, a movie makes its moral judgments for us. Yes, there’s a haunting ambiguity to films like “The Conformist” or “Taxi Driver” or “Tár.” But when was the last time you saw moral ambiguity in a genre movie? Even the “Mad Max” films, in their visionary savagery, draw a clean line between nobility and treachery, speed-demon heroism and outlaw selfishness. But “Concrete Utopia” is a dystopian disaster movie with a difference. This year’s South Korean entry in the Oscar competition for best international feature, it places its characters in a desperate, scary, do-or-die situation and then refuses to tell the audience what to think about them. It’s a fractious, blood-soaked drama about the will to survive that feels like “Earthquake” crossed with “Lord of the Flies.” What’s gripping is that you watch it and think, “If I were in this movie, what would I do?”
The director, Um Tae-hwa, kicks things off with a documentary montage of towering rectangular apartment buildings in Seoul, as a newscaster offers a drive-by meditation on how apartment living has transformed South Korean society. Apartments, we’re told, were once a means to an end, to getting a larger home. Now they’re a cookie-cutter end in themselves, coveted by citizens who compete to purchase them through lotteries. The film’s title refers to the cityscape of Seoul, with its apartment complexes that jut up like rows of children’s blocks. But it also refers to what happens when only one of them is left standing.
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An earthquake happens, like a tsunami erupting out of the earth; the image is so violent and roiling we half expect to see a sea monster emerge from the buckling ground. The entire city is reduced to smoking ruins, and it’s more than an urban disaster — closer to an apocalyptic event. Seoul is destroyed, and maybe the rest of South Korea, too. (Government? Media? All gone.) What we see is a wasteland rendered with digital imagery and fantastic sets: vast mountains of rubble, concrete walls with wires jutting out, corpses and detritus — a city turned inside out from the bottom up.
Yet amid the surreal desolation, a freak thing occurs. In the middle of Seoul, a single apartment complex remains standing — one of the new upscale beehives. It’s called the Hwang Gung apartments, and it looks like a giant hotel, with two 30-story rectangular wings meeting in a circular pivot at the center. The apartments themselves are modest but relatively spacious. It’s the kind of place the residents regard as a sanctuary, and now it really is. It’s the lifeboat they’re on, their refuge from disaster. Um treats the modern apartment complex the way David Cronenberg did in “They Came From Within” — as a faintly ominous and deceptive cocoon.
In the early scenes, set just after the earthquake, the natural impulse is to let other people into the complex and help them. But there aren’t enough resources. (The city is filled with straggling refugees.) So the residents hold a meeting and move toward a decision that’s based on pure survival, and also on the kind of class privilege that the movies have long geared us to reject as corrupt. They will not let any outsiders in. Only those who own apartments can stay.
At first we think, “How inhumane.” Yet there’s a baseline moral logic at work. If the residents turn the complex into a fortress, taking refuge there, making forays out for food (they look for stores, buried in the rubble, to raid) and treating any outsider as a “cockroach” who must be shunned, they will persevere, and they will live. If they don’t, and the outsiders start pouring in like zombies in a zombie movie, there will be chaos, and no one will survive.
And because there is a moral logic to that, the apartment dwellers do more than live by it. They turn it into a code, a belief system, a kind of cult. They choose a leader, Kim Young-tak (Lee Byung-hun), who at one point, in a mad fury, snuffs out a ground-floor fire (that’s the basis of his perceived heroism), and he rises to the occasion to organize them into a ragtag force of survival. He becomes known as the Delegate, and Lee, from “Squid Game,” radiates a sinewy hunger reminiscent of Willem Dafoe — and a scrungy imperiousness that might make you think of Elon Musk. He elevates the “We first” methodology of the apartment dwellers into a creed, leading them in a ritual chant (“Hooray Hwang Gung! Hooray Hwang Gung! Let’s go! Win!”) and in nighttime firelit karaoke parties.
In flashback, we see Kim Young-tak’s violent backstory, which renders him an even more ambiguous character. Suffice to say that he’s an identity thief who doesn’t really own his apartment. The thrust of our sympathy remains with the film’s two other central characters, Min-sung (Park Seo-joon, from “The Marvels”) and Myung-hwa (Park Bo-young), a gentle couple with benevolent impulses; he’s a civil servant, she’s a nurse suffused with quiet empathy. But “Concrete Utopia,” like “Lord of the Flies,” is a parable about how empathy gets destroyed.
It is also, in the end, a movie about the primal need for — and meaning of — home. The film is an allegory of contemporary South Korea (and, just maybe, a lot of other places), in which home is getting harder to come by. Shouting through a bullhorn, Kim Young-tak riles up the residents with a call-and-response chant: “Our apartments…” (“Our apartments..”) “…belong to the residents!” (“…belong to the residents!”) As rallying cries go, it’s not exactly “No justice, no peace!” Yet that’s the perverse tug of “Concrete Utopia,” a movie that uses the lurching, rough-and-tumble, at times even schlocky form of a disaster movie to ask what home is worth.
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