Concrete Utopia, a post-apocalyptic disaster thriller from Um Tae-hwa, is a film almost singularly uninterested in subtlety. It hits plenty of familiar beats from Lord of the Flies to Parasite, but between Lee Byung-hun’s outstanding performance, immaculate production design, and a free-wheeling sense of humor, Concrete Utopia finds a spot near the top of the recent social satire films.
Co-written by Um and Lee Shin-ji, Concrete Utopia takes place in Imperial Palace Apartments, the last apartment block standing after a massive earthquake devastates Seoul, and maybe the whole world—certainly, help is not forthcoming. That it also happens in a record cold winter is double bad news, without power, shelter is the only means of protection from the elements.
Min-sung (Park Seo-joon, lately of The Marvels but also Parasite) and Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young, Strong Girl Bong-soon) are a young husband and wife who have only recently bought an apartment in the building. They are lucky to not only survive the earthquake, but also have a home to retreat to as people begin freezing in the ruin of the city. Min-sung is unsure of what to do in this new world, but Myeong-hwa, a nurse, remains compassionate, especially to the newly homeless. They take in a mother and her young son, only to have the pair forcibly ejected from their apartment as paranoia and a hoarding mentality overtakes the “residents” of the building.
It's easy to judge Myeong-hwa as naïve, especially as she has not been outside the building since the earthquake and Min-sung has, she doesn’t really know what the state of the world is. Min-sung is trying to adjust to a new reality, while Myeong-hwa appears to be clinging to remnants of an old order that is no longer useful. But really, Concrete Utopia is NIMBY-ism writ large, a worst-case scenario for what happens when we define ourselves by our address and stop seeing our neighbors, especially the less fortunate, as people. Survivors from a neighboring, more luxurious apartment block are scorned the way the residents of Imperial Palace were once scorned for not living in as hip a building. In these specific circumstances, Myeong-hwa might be naïve, but within the larger social satire framework, she is one of the only characters operating from a place of humanity. As everyone else devolves into tribalism, she remains kind and compassionate.
But the real star of Concrete Utopia is Lee Byung-hun (Squid Game, Mr. Sunshine, The Magnificent 7’s Billy Rocks) as the mysterious “Mr. Delegate”, the man chosen to lead the residents of Imperial Palace in this new world. He is fanatical, enforcing the rules of the apartments with increasing fervor, even as his own reality begins to crumble. This is a showcase for Lee, as versatile an actor as you can ask for, and here he gets to do a little bit of everything, from comedy to drama to action to what I can only call “tragic karaoke”. He gives a spectacular performance, embodying the worst of both the old world and the new, a man who, once given a single square inch to call his own, becomes the worst sort of NIMBY, turning on people struggling just as he so recently did.
The film’s message is clear but never bogged down, it speeds through its 129-minute runtime. Powered by Lee Byung-hun’s performance and truly outstanding production design—the raised hand motif only becomes more horrifying throughout the film—Concrete Utopia finds its own niche in the recent spate of social satire thrillers, including several that have come from South Korea in recent years. The natural comparison is Parasite, but it has stronger shades of Train to Busan and The Walking Dead, layered over a cautionary tale about what happens when we place too much importance on our address and not enough on our humanity. Concrete Utopia is a mix of familiar genres and tropes, but mixed with Lee Byung-hun and Um Tae-hwa’s confident direction, it makes for a hell of an entertaining film.
Concrete Utopia is now playing exclusively in theaters.