Concrete Utopia: a moralising disaster movie

Director Um Tae-hwa explores human behaviour in the wake of an earthquake that decimates Seoul with a Ballardian story set in a post-apocalyptic apartment complex.

22 September 2023

By Sara Merican

Concrete Utopia (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. 

Concrete Utopia feels like a blockbuster-level thought experiment about social organisation in an apocalypse: provocative, full of moral quandaries and at times conceptual to a fault. South Korea’s entry for the Academy Awards opens with an earthquake decimating almost all of Seoul and leaving a wake of rubble and dust. Only one apartment complex, Hwang Gung Apartments, remains standing, home to about a hundred residents. Based on a Korean webtoon titled ‘Cheerful Outcast’, the film probes: How does a community organise itself, when existing institutions are destroyed? Do humans naturally desire moral and social order?

The rousing opening minutes and intriguing premise soon give way to a more ponderous, solemn procession in the film’s first hour. Viewers are introduced to the apartment’s dwellers like elected leader Yeong-tak (the eternally enigmatic Lee Byung-hun), husband-and-wife Min-sung (the wildly popular Park Seo-jun) and Myung-hwa (Park Bo-young), as well as Geum-ae (Kim Sun-young), the head of Hwang Gung Apartments women’s association.

After fearlessly rushing into a burning house to put out a blaze, Yeong-tak is quickly deemed to have the qualities of a leader and is appointed the Resident Delegate, tasked with mapping out the path to survival. Yeong-tak muses, “I feel like our apartment has been chosen.” This quip shapes the film as a kind of divine tragedy, but instead of a sacred flood, it is with an almighty earthquake that mankind is abandoned by the gods and asked to rebuild the earth. 

Director Um Tae-hwa opts for a grey, ashen colour scheme for Concrete Utopia, underscoring the devastatingly bleak outlook for the film’s characters. Help never turns up: there are no firefighters, ambulances, nor search and rescue teams. Yeong-tak, along with other residents, rally together and establish three rules amid the disaster: allowing only residents to live in the building (non-residents are brutally pushed out), dividing rations as proportionate to each resident’s contributions toward the community, and making decisions through democratic consensus. 

Concrete Utopia’s focus on apartment blocks accords the film with an urgent voice, given how public housing has become a sensitive flashpoint in South Korea, in the wake of a giant scandal involving the Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH) in 2021. Officials from the agency were suspected of using privileged information about future government housing programmes for personal gain. 

Hwang Gung Apartments is not a neutral dwelling, but a key visual link to the real-life Korean politics that informs Um Tae-hwa’s work. The film turns the question of capital on its head when money is made absurd amid the city’s destruction – cash no longer has value, instead, barter trade flourishes in the apartment, with water, oil and lighters becoming sought-after resources. 

Concrete Utopia takes a while to find its teeth but at the halfway point, right when the film is teetering on the precipice of becoming straight-laced blockbuster fare, Hye-won’s (Park Ji-hu) entrance allows the story to blossom. Existing as an ‘outsider’ who has newly become an insider in the Hwang Gung Apartments (as the accidental child of a love affair between a resident and non-resident), Hye-won shatters the illusion of fairness and stability in the community’s emergency-time system. Through Hye-won’s condemnation of the apartment’s rules and suspicions about Yeong-tak’s background, the disaster movie evolves into a more frightening mystery and moral interrogation, plumbing the depths of human depravity. 

One resident proclaims that amid the disaster, “a murderer and a pastor are now the same”, while others whisper about disappearing corpses, as residents resort to cannibalism to stave off hunger. But the moral persistence of characters like Hye-won and Myung-hwa, as they tend to the wounds of residents and snoop around for clues to Yeong-tak’s past, offer some hope that the collapse of the city won’t automatically lead to the fall of humanity and its values. It is a pity that these two characters are criminally under-utilised, especially in the first half of the film – often playing second (or third) fiddle to the increasingly tiresome, macho bravado of Concrete Utopia’s male characters. 

The ending takes a shockingly dark turn which may leave some audiences dissatisfied, but it gives way to a closing scene that arguably boasts one of the most intelligent shots in the film. Lasting almost 35 seconds, the camera tilts 90 degrees and quietly pushes the viewer to take a while to reorient themselves. Perhaps Concrete Utopia’s parting message is that even in an upside-down world, we can find a way to ground ourselves, and live meaningfully again.