Director: Um Tae-Hwa
Cast: Lee Byung Hun, Park Seo Jun, Park Bo Young, Kim Sun-young, Park Ji-hu
Runtime: 2 hr 10 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 24 August 2023
Synopsis: The world has been reduced to rubble by a massive earthquake. While no one knows for sure how far the ruins stretch, or what the cause of the earthquake may be, in the heart of Seoul there is only one apartment building left standing. It is called Hwang Gung Apartments. As time passes, outsiders start coming in to Hwang Gung Apartments, trying to escape the extreme cold. Before long, the apartment residents are unable to cope with the increasing numbers. Feeling a threat to their very survival, the residents enact a special measure.
Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun has starred in a couple of disaster-themed movies particularly Ashfall and Emergency Declaration in recent years. And yet again, he is putting his good looks and acting into Concrete Utopia, a disaster movie that is more of a thoughtful affair than an intense rollercoaster ride.
Instead of a lavish, CGI-heavy scene that depicts a massive earthquake hitting the city of Seoul, Concrete Utopia opens with the aftermath of the disaster. A single apartment building is left standing among the ruins and a group of survivors are making their way there to seek shelter from the winter cold.
Out of nowhere, a certain Kim Young-tak (Lee Byung-hun) is voted as the resident’s delegate after he displayed an act of bravery during a fire case. He leads the residents to “evict” the non-residents out of the building and helped establish a fair system of distributing food and water when supplies become scarce. He also leads a team of able men to scour food and water from the ruins and soon becomes the de facto leader of the building. Min-seong (Park Seo-joon), an ex-public servant is also tasked by Kim to become the leader of the patrol team given his military experience while his wife, Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young) contributes her nursing skills.
You might be thinking so what is director Um Tae-hwa brewing in the end given the movie still has more than 90 minutes to go. A survival tale set in a post-apocalypse world? Maybe a pending virus outbreak or are you expecting more aftershocks?
It turns out Um has more tricks up his sleeve despite the original material being based on a webtoon. Conflicts start to occur among the residents after some are found out to be hiding non-residents or “cockroaches” as they are termed in their apartments. Myeong-hwa for one struggles with the fact that the refugees are going to freeze to death and Min-seong believes this is the only way to survive in their current predicament.
To add to the problem, the residents find it harder and harder to search for available edible food supplies and the more they venture out, the more danger they faced. Desperation turned them into looters and other survivors are baiting their time to attack the residents.
Um reserves the best for last as Kim Young-tak’s identity is revealed to be a non-resident of the building. As to why and how, credit has to go to the writers for painting a complex, engrossing character, one that Lee Byung-hun fully immersed himself into. Lee’s acting talent again comes to place whose transition from a quiet loner to a ruthless, maddening leader is the standout of the flick. Brief flashbacks of Kim and Min-seong are also shown showcasing the true nature of both men before the disaster. In a way effectively explaining why their lives has turned into a complicated, contradicted mess.
Instead of a predictable, CGI disaster movie that plays faithfully to the Hollywood handbook of massive natural disasters, Concrete Utopia touches on many thought-provoking themes such as the true evil nature of human beings and most of all, Korean’s obsession with home ownership. Do you play the hero or devil when you are trapped in an impossible situation? As Myeong-hwa finds out in the finale, there is still a rational way out of any dire circumstances.
(An unexpected intense, meaningful disaster movie featuring a standout performance from Lee Byung-hun)
Review by Linus Tee