Concrete Utopia review – the tense Korean dystopian thriller is a bitter satire of the housing crisis | Movie

AAnother day, another strong Korean genre film. And it’s another one that treads the territory of social atavism, where films and television from this country still have a strong impact, from Snowpiercer to King of Pigs to Squid Game. South Korea’s contender for the 2024 International Feature Film Oscar, Um Tae-hwa’s Concrete Utopia is a bitter satire on its recent housing bubble. It takes place in a devastated, pale post-apocalyptic Seoul, where only one tower remains standing. National icon Lee Byung-hun (Joint Security Area, Squid Game) is in fantastic form as the tyrannical “delegate” who runs the show inside the building.

The exact nature of what destroyed Seoul is vague, with an earthquake mentioned and a giant pyroclastic cloud visible in the disaster scenes. It also doesn’t make sense that the Hwang Gung Apartments wouldn’t immediately be overrun by the millions of survivors outside. But all this is just a pragmatic shortcut for the sake of a neat allegory between the haves and the have-nots (while the destruction itself is perhaps also a metaphor for the catastrophic energy of a market overheating real estate). Lee’s delegate, Kim – appointed after preventing a fire – rallies apartment owners to evict all foreigners. Soon, even the kind-hearted Min-sung (Park Seo-joon), who initially takes in two refugees, becomes wary of the “cockroaches” and is convinced of the superiority that God has given him.

The focus on the inside and the outside, normality and dehumanization is eerily reminiscent of The Zone of Interest, winner of the 2024 Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. (And both films feature a very similar gagging scene.) But Um also combines capitalist inequality with a more communist kind of satire. The residents are supposed to be equal, but they are too eager to cede their authority and responsibilities to Delegate Kim. “You look hot!” someone says about his bloodied face after confronting the expelled scum, and with rock star charisma a viable post-apocalyptic social currency, a cult of personality is soon in effect.

Initially operating with the kind of disconcerting cheerfulness with which Korean films often approach trauma, Concrete Utopia becomes increasingly tense and serious. The film not only highlights the self-mythological roots of power – as Min-sung’s gentle wife Myung-hwa (Park Bo-young) digs into the delegate’s past – but also how such lies ultimately corrupt and pervert everyone nearby. If George Orwell had had a career as a Korean real estate agent, this is the kind of story he might have told.

Concrete Utopia is now available on UK digital platforms

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