Story: Min-seong (Park Seo-joon) is a civil servant and along with his wife Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young) he has been able to realize the dream of owning an apartment. One day, however, there is a massive earthquake that devastates everything far and wide. Only the apartment building in which the couple lives was spared. Since there is no information coming from the outside and there is not even a helicopter circling the sky, it seems to take quite some while before they can expect being rescued. Soon, survivors of the surrounding apartment buildings arrive, though, and try to seek shelter within the high-rise building from the cold outside. The residents of the apartment building have a limited rations and want to discuss how to deal with the "outsiders". They decide to have an anonymous vote about whether the outsiders should be allowed to stay. In order to speed up future decisions, they also decide to appoint a delegate. They choose Kim Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun) because he has shown initiative and willingness to make sacrifices during an apartment fire that happened earlier. Yeong-tak slowly grows into his role and so it is up to him to protect the apartment area from robbers and to secure new food through scouting the surroundings. In this context Min-seong takes on the role of the security officer. Shortly afterwards, there are not only problems with the outsiders, but Yeong-tak too seems to hide something that could lead to a problem.
Review: When was the last time Korea actually went on a brave, entertaining tour through different genres without the whole work turning into an arbitrary mix of different ideas? For example as was the case with "Save the Green Planet", in which a conspiracy theorist who clearly lost all common sense still ends up being right with his "theory"? For some reason, "Concrete Utopia" reminded me of that movie, because here we also get a well-known genre that is tackled (this time, it's the disaster genre) and everything turns out a little different than expected. It already starts with the fact that you don't even know if you can take the premise seriously: just a single apartment building has been spared... After that, however, the genre of the disaster film is looked at through a socio-critical lens. It's like conducting a social experiment asking how people would regroup after the collapse of our known social system. The answers are thrilling, even if some of them are quite obvious.
You will probably also ask yourself quite quickly when the rescue workers will arrive, or what is actually going on in the rest of the country. Surely, not the entire world can be affected by the earthquake, so where are the helicopters in the sky? None of this is of interest in this story. It's almost as if the apartment building has been transported to a different dimension in which everything is just rubble, debris, and dust. Only a high-rise building serves as a beacon of hope. But how will the people still having a home act? Will they share and therefore be worse off, or will everyone just care about themselves? The answer should not really come as a surprise, and in the context of today's political problems the scenes in which outsiders are driven out and borders enforced, can also be understood as commentary on the migration crisis. But "Concrete Utopia" is not preachy, something that is pretty rare these days. Instead, it makes you think about how you feel about the characters' choices.
Nevertheless, there are a few typical villains, and for German viewers, the scenes in which outsiders (also called "cockroaches") who are hiding in apartments get tracked down by the self-proclaimed "police" and then dragged out of the building, may show some obvious parallels to the Gestapo. Which makes you wonder when there will be the first execution, but strictly speaking, it is almost a death warrant if you have to get by as an outcast staying outside in the cold. As the new society slowly starts to organize and establishes itself, it even creates ridiculous slogans and videos reminding you of a fascist or communist regime. Being in an extreme situation, how else could a society re-form itself than in an equally extreme way? The fact that food is distributed according to everyone's individual contribution to the community is quite different from communism, though. After all, the residents of the apartment building are not equal at all, and so you would be wrong if you had previously thought that the apartment building could symbolize the elite, while those living outside represent the common people no one cares about.
The line between good and evil is pretty thin too, and especially the transformation of the individuals makes up a large part of the story's fascination. Lee Byung-hun ("Emergency Declaration") is more or less randomly elected as the leader, and the pressure pushes him more and more into this role. Power and responsibility make him become increasingly extreme, but he still has a tragic past and there is a secret waiting to be revealed. Watching people scouting the outskirts to get food, it also becomes clear that the residents of the high-rise complex embody the villains for the rest of the survivors. However, it's not quite that simple and with Myeong-hwa, played by Park Bo-young ("The Silenced"), there is finally someone we can sympathize with, even though the women remain surprisingly inactive until the second half of the movie and they just seem happy that the men take over the dangerous tasks. Park Seo-joon ("Dream") is a person who is stuck in between his wife, who represents the heart, and Yeong-tak, who in turn does everything necessary for the community's survival.
While the gray color scheme, a few rather gloomy scenes and the freely chosen confinement in the apartment building sometimes remind you a little bit of "Sweet Home", the movie also manages to score points with its pleasant sense of humor, especially at the beginning. For example, just after having voted using two different-colored Go stones, one of the residents asks during the counting of the votes which color means what again. It makes you wonder why some people are even allowed to vote in the first place. But at other points the movie also gets quite serious, as almost all inhabitants immediately get carried away by the power dynamics, and those who recognize and call out the dangers of these proceedings are either not taken seriously or even tyrannized or maybe they simply do not care at first. When the story, which is based on the webtoon "Cheerful Outcast", slowly runs out of steam, the appearance of a new character brings in a breath of fresh air and the movie develops more into the direction of a thriller. Director Eom Tae-hwa already managed to create an imaginative fantasy drama with "Vanishing Time". "Concrete Utopia", on the other hand, is a lot bleaker and at some point, you have to ask yourself if a happy ending is even possible. In any case, the ending is powerful in the way it presents its message, which once again wonderfully combines entertainment and social criticism. While some characters may seem a bit half-baked and some aspects are almost exaggerated, this movie is clearly a good choice for Korea's contribution to Best International Film at the 2023 Oscars.