Film Review: Concrete Utopia | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, February 29th, 2024  

Concrete Utopia

Studio: 815 Pictures
Director: Um Tae-hwa

Dec 06, 2023 Web Exclusive
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Um Tae-hwa’s Concrete Utopia uses the disaster genre to deliver pressing themes on religion, gender, and class differences, to somewhat middling results. The film is South Korea’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Oscars.

Watching Concrete Utopia’s piercing and overwhelming first few minutes, you may think you’ve missed some scenes. The events of the film begin right after a giant earthquake strikes South Korea, destroying all of Seoul’s massive apartment blocks except one and killing most of the population. In these dire circumstances, we meet the film’s two main characters, Min-seong (Park Seo-joon) and Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), a married public servant and nurse who live in the sole apartment block left.

Initially, the residents of the apartment help “outsiders” by letting them stay in the building with them. Min-seong and Myeong-hwa take in a mother and her young son, but a divide between their mentalities begins to form as Min-seong gets more frustrated sharing their belongings and rations with two other people. This frustration seems to be shared among the building’s residents, who form their interior government. They select the mysterious Young-tak (Lee Byung-hun) as their president and vote to forcibly remove anyone who was not a resident of the apartment before the disaster happened. These actions are driven by the residents’ false perception that they were spared from disaster by divine right and that their lives are more valuable than those of the other survivors.

Once the residents chase outsiders away, their government devolves into more of a regime, establishing an Anti-Crime Force, raiding the city to locate food sources, and punishing anyone who helps or houses outsiders. As more people begin to worship Young-tak, following him and supporting his every decision, it becomes clear that not everything is what it seems with the newfound dictator, specifically regarding his past. The new rules of the apartment complex further drive a stake between Min-seong and Myeong-hwa, as Myeong-hwa actively opposes the new regime’s rules and regulations.

Concrete Utopia is full of messages about how humans only care about their self-survival, looking for any reason to put themselves on a higher level than the people around them. As such, the film’s decision to open after the disaster and move at a lightning-fast speed makes sense. There’s a lot of material to get through, and thematic revelations can only occur as the residents’ conditions become even more dire. But, exploring so many ideas within the span of one film–with a simple plot, at that–does get the better of the film’s storytelling decisions. More often than not, Concrete Utopia operates as a thematic sampler pack, highlighting many ideas but commenting on them from such a great distance that they lose their impact.

Nowhere is this flaw more apparent than in Min-seong’s and Myeong-hwa’s relationship. Their increasing alienation from one another, based on the increasingly different ways they see the world and other people, provides a simple way to communicate most of the film’s themes. However, both their characters and their relationship lack the development necessary to showcase the irreparable damage their differing opinions have on how they interact and live with one another. In the end, their relationship is yet another missed opportunity to communicate something impactful, even though all the themes are sitting there, waiting to be brought together.

Regardless of the film’s thematic shortcomings, Concrete Utopia is incredibly entertaining. While it does feel long at times, especially given its 130-minute runtime, the film’s captivating narrative and skillfully constructed action sequences consistently make it difficult to look away from the screen. It’s a shame the action isn’t backed by more developed, hard-hitting commentary. (

Author rating: 5.5/10

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