Action Adventure

Shock, Awe and Satire: A TIFF Review of ‘Concrete Utopia’

September 25, 2023Ben MK

Hollywood has essentially become a factory for unoriginal ideas in recent years. And with almost every movie these days being a sequel, a spin-off, or a remake of a beloved classic, it's hard to argue the opposing position. Whether it's the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the tenth installment in the Fast & Furious series, originality seems to have fallen by the wayside. When it comes to Korean cinema, however, that statement couldn't be further from the truth. From Parasite to Train to Busan, Korean filmmakers have gained increasing notoriety for redefining film genres as we know them. And with Concrete Utopia, that again holds true, in this innovative twist on the fan-favorite disaster epic.

Based on the Korean webtoon "Cheerful Outcast Part II," the story wastes no time setting the stage. A massive earthquake has struck Seoul, reducing virtually every single structure to rubble, with the exception of one. Home to 219 residents, Hwang Gung Apartments has somehow managed to escape the ruin that has befallen the rest of the city. But as the denizens of Hwang Gung quickly learn, even a gift as miraculous as that can eventually become a curse. As people from nearby collapsed buildings slowly start to arrive at the apartment seeking refuge, it becomes apparent that Hwang Gung's resources will soon be depleted if they continue to take in refuges. So, in a difficult decision, the residents opt to kick all outsiders out, sending them back into the freezing, barren wasteland. Appointing Kim Young-tak (Lee Byung-hun) as the Resident Delegate and placing their fate in his seemingly capable hands, Hwang Gung's survivors soon begin to see their fortunes turning around, as they begin fortifying the apartment to protect it from outsiders and organizing search parties to forage for food and supplies. However, is Young-tak really who he says he is, and can they really entrust their lives to him?

Directed by Eom Tae-hwa, what follows isn't your average disaster movie. Blending excitement and thrills with satirical humor that pokes fun at government propaganda videos, it's an engrossing and entertaining parable that blurs the line between comedy, action and drama, resulting in a one-of-a-kind mashup that breathes new life into a tried-and-true genre. More importantly, it's a compelling tale of human survival that shows the lengths humanity will go to when faced with extinction. And while it's by no means lacking in crowd-pleasing moments, it's these more thought-provoking themes that allow Concrete Utopia to stand tall.

Concrete Utopia screens under the Gala Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 10 min.

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