Friday, December 8, 2023

An apartment becomes a fortress

   What reason could there be to make what feels like a zillionth big-screen foray into dystopian distress? 
  South Korean director Um Tae-hwa's Concrete Utopia provides a powerful answer to that question.
  Um not only drops us into a devastated world, he takes a troubling look at the complexities of human behavior under extreme stress.
  Um begins with what appears to be footage from a documentary about Korean real estate. Apartment dwelling has come to dominate Seoul as the dream of single-family home ownership vanishes. An apartment may be small, but status accrues to those who live in luxury complexes. 
   Before you have time to digest any of this, all hell erupts. A giant earthquake destroys most of Seoul, leaving only one apartment building standing.
   The rest of the city is reduced to rubble. Essential services -- food supply, policing, transportation, electricity, and banking -- disappear. Cell phones become useless and, after a time, survivors realize that no cavalry will be riding to their rescue.
   The first question facing the battered residents of the city's last standing building is whether to admit desperate outsiders, folks seeking relief from a vicious cold snap that has seized the city. Even the hallways of a building without heat or electricity beat exposure to life-threatening temperatures.
   Looking for a plan that provides the best chance for survival, the building’s residents vote to exclude all non-owners. They also elect one of the residents (Lee Byung-hun) as their leader. 
   Increasingly, the building becomes a fortress with an internal police force, a food distribution system, and a patrol of stalwarts who venture into ruins to scavenge for food and supplies. 
  A young couple (Park Seo-joon and Park Bo-young) embodies the movie's essential conflict. He's drawn into the increasingly authoritarian environment; she resists. 
  Don’t let the word “authoritarian” fool you. Um's tale is nuanced and complex. It's not impossible that  authoritarianism under such extreme conditions might be the least awful alternative. 
    Um keeps his focus tight. It's not clear whether any other part of Korea has survived or whether the entire planet has been devastated.
  No matter.
  Ordinary people suddenly inhabit the totally convincing world Um creates, a nightmare reality composed of concrete slabs, debris, and mangled bodies. 
   And when violence erupts, it's felt, not celebrated. 
   Moral questions torment characters who, but for an earthquake, would have remained anonymous faces amidst the bustle of a city life. Um turns what could have been one more post-apocalyptic thriller into an intriguing challenge of a movie. Concrete Utopia holds us in its grip.

No comments: