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MOVIE REVIEW: Dystopia, from the eyes of the Everyman: a review of ‘Concrete Utopia’

‘Concrete Utopia’ hits all the necessary narrative beats to stay enjoyable and riveting throughout its rather dark and disturbing look at humanity but it also manages to say what it has to say about our human capacity for caring for others.

Headlined by Korean superstars Lee Byung-hun (‘Squid Game,’ ‘Mr. Sunshine’), Park Seo Jun (‘Itaewon Class,’ ‘Dream’), and Park Bo-Young (‘Strong Girl Bongsoon’), the dystopian science fiction film ‘Concrete Utopia’ is a hard-look at civilization at the cold-hard grip of a disaster. It is a 129-minute relentless character study of the human race on survival mode. It is unafraid to get scary, poignant, and surprisingly funny. 

Without warning, a massive earthquake ravages the city of Seoul and, in the most fantastical way, only one apartment building has remained untouched after the devastation. This touch of magic elevates the film into the level of a dark fable or a cautionary tale. At the start, the residents of the apartment building has taken in outsiders looking for shelter but as thieving and violence begins to erupt, the residents decide to take control of the space and kick everyone else out. A governing body is then formed and a system is enacted to keep the peace and to ensure the resident’s survival.

We see this through three perspectives: Lee Byung-hun’s Yeong-tak, who becomes the defacto leader when he shows decisive decision-making skills when a fire erupts early on, Park Seo Jun’s Min-sung, a civil servant who feels overwhelmed by the current state of the world, and his wife Myeong-hwa, played by Park Bo-young, who is a nurse and who is desperately clinging on to her humanity as the world gets fiercer and meaner.

Lee Byung-hun is delivering a magnificent performance of an ordinary man who is thrust with so much power. We can literally see his character change as he starts to enjoy the power and adoration he gets from the leadership position he now holds. Lee shows off his magnificent range here and is able to convey his character’s darkest corners with physically transforming on screen when his character starts to get drunk with power.

On the flip-side, Park Bo Young serves as the moral compass of the film. She is witness to the discrimination and bullying that is happening within the system and as much as she wants to fight against it, she’s also feeling alone in a world that has become worse during survival mode.


But while Lee and Park are doing excellent portrayals of these typical characters in such events, it’s Park Seo Jun’s Min-sung that is the most textured and refreshing to see. We’ve seen Park Seo Jun from common and brusque as he was in ‘Midnight Runners’ and ‘Fight for My Way’ and we’ve also seen him in refined and elegant and powerful like in ‘What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim?’ and ‘She Was Beautiful.’ Min-sung is a whole new character for Park, who invokes a sense of the everyman in Min-sung. He is unambitious and unassuming. He wants to be just below the radar and while he is determined to protect his family – Myeong-Hwa – he also doesn’t want to rock the boat too much. It’s a layered performance that isn’t as flashy as Lee Byung-hun but it helps truly sell the film’s premise of a world succumbing to darkness and how people just give in to stay alive.

Boasting of fantastic special effects scenes of the destruction of Seoul, director Um Tae-hwa adeptly balances the larger, more spectacular aspects of his story with the more tender, most intimate moments of the narrative. He easily switches from comic – sometimes even campy – to the deadly serious as the story unfolds and it keeps the movie interesting. After the initial eviction of the non-residents, a scene that is immensely tension-filled and riveting, the film then cuts to a portion much like a corny, AVP that shows life in the apartment building. It’s funny but also scary, when you feel the contrast between the images and the tone of the moment. It’s aspects such a these that keeps the film from falling completely within Western mainstream Hollywood disaster films.

It’s also incredible to see Park Seo Jun, the superstar of so many top Kdramas and movies, play someone so passive, so easily corrupted. He is torn between the seductive pull of Yeong-tak’s credo of survival and the love of his kind-hearted wife Myeong-hwa. Min-sung then becomes the fulcrum by which the film has the most to say.

‘Concrete Utopia’ hits all the necessary narrative beats to stay enjoyable and riveting throughout its rather dark and disturbing look at humanity but it also manages to say what it has to say about our human capacity for caring for others. It’s not subtle at all but it’s well-executed that it’s worth every penny.

My Rating:

Concrete Utopia is now showing in sneak previews at your favorite cinemas on September 11 and 12, one week before the regular release on September 20. Get your tickets and screening times here.

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Concrete Utopia
Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller
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