A global disaster has already reduced Seoul to a pile of rubble at the start of South Korea’s Oscar bid Concrete Utopia. Only one apartment building remains intact. While housing has long been expensive in Korea’s metropolitan areas, the disaster has significantly increased the value of this particular building and what residents will give up to protect their investment. Most of the nearby survivors have lost the homes that might help them survive the brutal winter. They beg for shelter, but the residents no longer see outsiders as neighbors, as fellow citizens or even human. They describe the outsiders as cockroaches that would invade and overrun their homes. That makes it easier to treat them inhumanely.
With water, food and security quickly becoming an issue, the residents seek a leader, someone who can establish priorities and set boundaries, someone who can keep the hordes at bay. The man they choose is Kim Young-tak, played with grim desperation by Lee Byung-hun. Young-tak displays some talent as a leader. Food and medicine are organized. Rules are established. If there were still trains running, they would run on time. As a commander Young-tak doubles down on the message that anyone who doesn’t live in the building is their enemy. Their “enemies” must remain outside even if they freeze to death. Very quickly people are separated into us and them, residents and refugees, humans and not quite human.
This does not sit well with resident Myeong-hwa, played by Park Bo-young. She’s a nurse, whose instinct is to nurture and care for others. Unfortunately, her kind husband, Min-sung, played by Park Seo-joon, has become Young-tak’s number two man. That means he’s encouraged to use violence to enforce Young-tak’s rules, no matter how much they trouble him. Empathy is useless in Young-tak’s new world order—where the prime directive is to survive. However, Young-tak is not invulnerable. He has a secret. A former tenant, played by Park Ji-hu, shows up and uses that secret to threaten his command.
Shrouded in a blue-gray light that makes a sunny future seem unlikely, the film explores the ease with which its possible to turn people against each other. While this film could be viewed as a worst-case scenario of what might happen during a global disaster, it can also be seen as a warning to choose your leaders wisely. Concrete Utopia delivers a chilling reminder of how easily people become refugees and how shabbily refugees are often treated.
Concrete Utopia was released in Korea on Aug. 9 and became a box office hit, earning $16.2 million in its first eight days. It quickly became the third highest grossing South Korean film of 2023. The film had its North American debut on Sept. 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and was selected by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) to represent Korea in the Best International Feature Film selection at the 2024 Academy Awards. Concrete Utopia is based on the webtoon Cheerful Neighbors by Kim Soong-nyoong.