It is still a Wednesday but the journey of Popcorn Reviewss with respect to watching and reviewing Oscar nominated films starts from today. And we begin our journey officially with the Korean film Concrete Utopia which is South Korea’s Official Entry to the 96th Academy Awards. South Korea is generally known to churn provocative and thought-provoking content, and they had reached a crescendo with Parasite in 2019. Since then the coveted award has eluded them but their films are always searing contenders at the start of the Oscar season. As far as Concrete Utopia was concerned, I didn’t know much on what the film had to offer other than its premise wherein it was safe to label the film as a disaster-thriller. Earlier in the year, even 2018 which is India’s Official Entry To The Academy Awards, was a disaster film having focused on the human angle of the 2018 Kerala Floods, but unlike that film, Concrete Utopia did seem like a fictional tale of sorts, but in a similar zone. With massive expectations, I ventured into Concrete Utopia….does it manage to impress, let’s find out.
Story & Screenplay
Concrete Utopia follows the story of a bunch of people grappling for survival following an earthquake. And while a calamity like an earthquake can bring the best out of people, it often also does bring out the worst in them. The story here is provocative and provides a searing commentary on the darker side of the human race following the events of a calamity. The actions are deeply disturbing and they will make you ponder long after the film has ended. The screenplay standing at about a 130 minutes was atleast 10 to 15 minutes longer than required that did lead to a little lag at certain portions. But, the events of the film were so well written that the impact of the film was overwhelming almost to a point of dissent and disgust for me.
The drama opens in almost a docu-drama fashion wherein the word ‘concrete’ was explained with respect to the city. As the saying goes, we all are residents of a concrete jungle wherein man has taken over nature, and built plenty of homes for himself from concrete. But when nature strikes back, the same concrete potentially turns into rubble. And that is what the drama touches upon briefly. But unlike other disaster films, the outlandish parts of the calamity are all reduced to the background while the writers choose to focus on the events following the calamity, especially with respect to the ‘human spirit’ that can and does go rogue here.
So, you are introduced to the some of the principal characters, including a couple, who reluctantly allow a couple of homeless people to take refuse in their flat, at the sole building that has survived the earthquake in their locality. The writers are tactful to introduce the character traits of the couple wherein one is completely in favour of helping people while her better half us not in agreement. Soon, with many of the homeless people landing up at their society amidst extreme weather, and with the resources running out swiftly, the residents of the society get together to form a rule wherein only the residents of the building can stay, leaving the rest to fend for themselves.
The proceedings are engrossing and most definitely provocative in nature with the worst of the human race coming to the fore. The events reminded me of the Spanish film The Platform that did tackle the class divide and class hierarchy so well. The emotion of compassion are overruled by that of selfishness, and it did make me ponder on how the ‘spirit’ might be an overrated term when it would boil down to prioritizing yourself over others in a crisis. This was particularly true with the residents going on a killing spree in order to gain food and resources for the society. The writers pleasantly try and keep the tone of the drama as a black comedy while switching to a thriller, every now and then.
There is a little subplot regarding the identity of one of the residents that adds an interesting layer to the drama. However, there is a little stutter in the middle when the events start getting repetitive, although the impact of the proceedings aren’t diluted much. Perhaps, a crisper edit here would have resulted in an even more tense watch. The events leading up to the finale act results in complete mayhem which was shocking to watch although the emotions that needed to hit home with respect to the couple, didn’t quite as there wasn’t enough time invested in their relationship. Yet, the intentions are on point with the final act with one of the character trying to come to terms with the contrasting survival instincts of her previous society with respect to the new one where she takes refuge. The writers did wish to relay the point that no matter how bad things are, some people would ensure that hope is still alive. Overall, the screenplay is well written and showcases the worst side of humanity in a rather uninhibited manner.
Dialogues, Music & Direction
The dialogues are conversational and at times very thought-provoking with some of the lines that does create a stir of sorts. The BGM is good and manages to make a mark as well. The cinematography coupled with the magnificent VFX capture the horrific after-effects of the calamity in the most brutal fashion. The editing is good but it could have been a little more sharper in the middle for a crisper watch. Director Um Tae-hwa does a terrific job in providing a mirror to mankind in the worst of situations. With each one left to fend for themselves, he doesn’t hold back in painting a horrifying and disturbing image that will disgust you to no bounds. And he does show flair in creating moments of intrigue along the way that ensures that the thoughts of the film linger on, long after the film has ended.
The performances are really good here although certain characters are one-dimensional too. Park Ji-hu as Hye-won has her moments to shine. Park Bo-young as Myeong-hwa delivers a heartfelt performance in a character that showcases passive compassion and knows how to distinguish between right and wrong. Park Seo-joon as Min-seong is a conflicted character who treads on the wrong path, and he does a fabulous job here. His character arc is heartening and he definitely leaves an impact here. Lee Byung-hun as Yeong-tak will make your blood boil with his antics and if that was the sentiment that he may have evoked then it can be said that he is brilliant to watch here. With no signs of remorse, his character is terrifying and almost disturbing at so many levels, and he does a fabulous job here.
South Korea’s Official Entry To The 96th Academy Awards This Year, Concrete Utopia is a provocative and deeply disturbing tale of existentialism wrapped in an apocalypse, bringing out the worst in mankind that makes for a terrifying watch.