‘Concrete Utopia’ Review: Housing Insecurity
"Love thy neighbor is far from mind when disaster strikes a Seoul apartment complex in this blackhearted social satire.
- Concrete Utopia
- NYT Critic’s Pick
- Directed by Tae-hwa Eom
- Action, Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
- Not Rated
- 2h 10m
Murder, mayhem and moral collapse follow all too quickly when an apocalyptic earthquake flattens Seoul in “Concrete Utopia,” South Korea’s entry in this year’s Oscar contest for best international feature. Smoothly shaping familiar genre tropes into a brutal study of class warfare and the stifling of pity, the director, Um Tae-hwa (who wrote the script with Lee Shin-ji), makes human kindness the first casualty of social disorder.
A brief introduction sets the scene as a newscaster notes the city’s declining prosperity, its towering apartment blocks no longer steppingstones to a home, but a final destination. And when the ground buckles and heaves in terrifying waves, the stunned residents of the Hwang Gung Apartments emerge to discover that their building is the only one left standing. Surrounded by corpse-strewn rubble, lacking water or power, they wait for rescue teams that never arrive. So when newly homeless survivors beg for entry, the residents must decide: Who deserves to live?
Centering our concerns on a compassionate young couple (Park Seo-jun and Park Bo-young), and shot through with shards of dark humor, “Concrete Utopia” observes how quickly we dehumanize the needy when they threaten our survival — and asks if we can be blamed for doing so. After the residents elect a leader (Lee Byung-hun) who swiftly shapes order from chaos, flashbacks reveal his violent past in scenes as morally ambivalent as his present behavior. He is not who the residents think he is, but he may very well be who they need.
As housing shortages fill our news feeds, “Concrete Utopia” pokes relentlessly at the meaning and moral obligations of owning a home. When things get desperate, the film wonders, how far would you go to protect yours?
Not rated. In Korean, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. In theaters.