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Toronto International Film Festival Review – South Korean Oscar Submission ‘Concrete Utopia’ is an Unsettling Exploration of Humanity Cornered

It’s hard to imagine losing everything, and to think about how a person’s behavior might shift when their circumstances are remarkably different. A change like that can happen in an instant without any warning, not that having time to prepare would definitely make it easier. The more complicated question is what happens when many people are left destitute but a few still have resources, and how do those with what they need treat those without? Concrete Utopia explores that idea with an engrossing tale of humanity’s descent into chaos.

A devastating earthquake ravages Seoul, leaving little aside from the Hwang Gung apartment complex standing. Realizing what they have, the residents are quick to take action to protect that stability. Geum-ae (Kim Sun-young) identifies everyone to ensure they actually live there, and the strong-willed Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun) is appointed their leader. As they do what they must in order to survive, Min-seong (Park Seo-joon) and his wife Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young) become unnerved by how the new state of reality is transforming people.

Concrete Utopia
Courtesy of Lotte Entertainment

The opening of Concrete Utopia, based in part on Kim Sung-nyung’s Cheerful Outcast webtoon and recently announced as South Korea’s official Oscar submission, showcases the arduous path many people take in the country to become apartment owners. The signifier of success and the feeling of having something that has truly been achieved is a universal sentiment, though there are cultural facets that enhance this particular story dealing with honor and responsibility, two tenets that aren’t always present in the face of a new world order.

At the beginning, it feels like this could be a science fiction film, but there’s nothing supernatural or unrealistic about its events. The scale of the earthquake is indeed terrifying, but these people don’t need zombies or invading aliens to turn them into something they no longer recognize. The veneration of the elected leader is an element that becomes more disturbing as it goes on and he reveals a lack of patience for those who, through nothing but bad luck, are now not entitled to the basic necessities afforded by the ownership of an apartment in the one complex that didn’t crumble to the ground.

Concrete Utopia
Courtesy of Lotte Entertainment

Filmmaker Um Tae-hwa follows up his previous features Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned and Ing-too-gi with this intense look at a decaying society, undone by the presence rather than the absence of what can now be considered luxuries and self-appointed to make decisions about the fates of others. There is much to consider about the current state of housing throughout the world and the numerous other things that determine class and opportunity, and this film doesn’t hold back in its depiction of how people change when they realize what the stakes truly are.

Marketed as a disaster epic and thriller, Concrete Utopia benefits from quieter moments that get to the heart of who its characters are when no one is watching and how that changes in front of an audience. There are echoes of a less frenetic High-Rise, a far more fitting comparison than District B13 or Athena. This isn’t a film about chaos but rather what it looks like to have order in a world largely devoid of it, and how arbitrary and cruel certain rules can seem when made by someone with clearly selfish motivations. At 130 minutes, it’s an engaging, grueling journey, one that can’t be easily shaken or dismissed. In the wake of such a crisis in real life, this film surely wouldn’t feel nearly as much like fiction as those watching comfortably from a movie theater would like to hope or believe.

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Concrete Utopia makes its North American premiere in the Gala Presentations section at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Abe Friedtanzer
Abe Friedtanzerhttps://www.cinemadailyus.com
Abe Friedtanzer is a film and TV enthusiast who spent most of the past fifteen years in New York City. He has been the editor of MoviesWithAbe.com and TVwithAbe.com since 2007, and has been predicting the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards since he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch them. He has attended numerous film festivals including Sundance, Tribeca, and SXSW, and is a contributing writer for The Film Experience, Awards Radar, and AwardsWatch.

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