Just as Pulp Fiction triggered a wave of inferior gangster flicks with a penchant for witty, fast-paced dialogue and Get Out paved the way for several socially conscious horror efforts, the seeds of Parasite’s widespread influence are beginning to sprout. The disaster movie Concrete Utopia would have still existed were it not for the unprecedented international success of Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar winner, of course, but I doubt producers would have been as eager to give blockbuster funding to a similarly class-conscious satire (which just happens to unfold under near-apocalyptic circumstances) if they didn’t sense similar breakout potential.
It’s not necessarily a criticism that the third film by director Um Tae-hwa follows closely in Bong’s footsteps, marrying his love for the country’s early wave of issue-driven melodramas––as was the case with Parasite, the influence of Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid looms large––with contemporary big-budget spectacle. It remains an intoxicating mix of styles within a different filmmaker’s hands, offering more substance than the special-effects extravaganzas any disaster movie of this scale often devolves into. But whereas Bong’s films typically deviate from the narrative expectations of whichever genre they’re dealing with, there are no surprises within Concrete Utopia, even if it does remain effective in outlining the ways authoritarianism takes hold among the privileged without compromising on blockbuster thrills.
No special effect within the film is quite as startling as the one that immediately follows an introductory montage about the explosion in Korean home ownership following the apartment-construction boom of the late 1980s. Seoul’s cityscape is now taken up almost entirely by towering modernist blocks, and the moment the newsreel montage ends is initially indistinguishable from the start of the action, taking a second to register the earthquake looming on the horizon that’s inching closer. Following the cataclysmic event, the Imperial Palace Apartment complex remains the only building in the city still standing, with the residents initially overwhelmed by the now-homeless citizens who are on their doorstep, desperate for food, water, and shelter. Young couple Min-seong (Park Seo-joon) and Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young) do their best to aid a mother with a small child, but the husband’s initial reluctance ends up feeding into more widespread frustrations felt by other property owners, who want to start taking steps to protect themselves from the outsiders looking for rations.
It isn’t long before the dehumanization begins. Soft-spoken resident Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun) is elected the building’s representative and slowly begins exerting his power by any means necessary; you will win no prizes for spotting the not-so-subtle parallels to the rise of the Nazis as he starts referring to any outsiders as “cockroaches,” and evicting anybody suspected of illegally sheltering them in their homes. Flashbacks that gradually reveal the leader’s deceitful ways of obtaining influence within this community do ever-so-slightly lessen the impact of the satire––there would be something far more chilling about an ordinarily unassuming man developing a genocidal instinct through his first taste of power, rather than a logical next step for someone with a checkered past. Concrete Utopia is more successful in outlining the ways people we wouldn’t necessarily consider evil end up as loyal followers of these regimes, framing the action largely through the eyes of Min-seong, whose devotion to the cause stems entirely from not wanting to share his food with those in need.
The director and co-writer Lee Shin-ji avoid characterizing him as a simplistic, mundane evil while ensuring he never strays too far into internally conflicted territory. He’s intriguing partially because of his skewed moral compass, buying into the idea that he’s doing the right thing to protect his family, blind to any criticism from his wife––for wont of a better term, a useful idiot that helps uphold this new normal. Many authoritarian regimes begin out of a desire of the upper classes to protect their properties; Um’s film is striking for suggesting that, in a climate-ravaged near-future, millions of ordinary people could become radicalized out of nothing more than selfishness. In this sense, I can understand exactly why it was selected as South Korea’s Oscar submission for Best International Film, hitting on international anxieties about the continued resurgence of far-right movements with cultural commentary that is broad but never derivative.
The class satire is much darker than any of Bong’s works, even if it does resemble them on initial glance. The influence of Snowpiercer is unavoidable from plot outline down (although it does mercifully resist applying a similar class structure to residents living on different levels of the complex, which I initially feared it would), while the surprisingly moving coda has subtle echoes of Parasite’s climax through the way it navigates the possibilities of continuing to live in the same space where a tragedy unfolded. But while it’s hard to avoid certain superficial similarities between Concrete Utopia and that director’s best-known efforts, it does ultimately feel distinct. It’s a more conventional genre blockbuster, certainly, lacking the morally knotty twists we’ve come to expect from Bong’s work. But it doesn’t pull any punches in its uncompromising portrayal of rising authoritarianism; it lands with greater impact than a more stereotypically crowd-pleasing disaster film.
Concrete Utopia opens in limited theaters on December 8 and expands nationwide on December 15.