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Concrete Utopia ★★★★



Director: Um Tae-hwa

Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Park Bo-young, Park Seo-jun

Released: 15th December 2023 (USA & Canada)

Should we even be surprised at this point that South Korean cinema is a force to be reckoned with? Legendary filmmakers such as Bong Joon-Ho, Park Chan-Wook and Lee Chang-Dong have left their mark on the film industry worldwide, especially with Parasite winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 2020. Concrete Utopia is now the latest South Korean feature to showcase their country’s tremendous talent and quality in filmmaking. Directed by Um Tae-Hwa, who has previously made Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned, his latest film stars an incredible cast of actors such as Lee Byung-Hun, Park Seo-Jun, Park Ji-Hu and Park Bo-Young. When you first hear about the premise, you’d feel you have seen this a hundred times. Don’t let it fool you because Concrete Utopia is more than just your typical disaster flick.

A massive earthquake has taken over the city of Seoul. Everything is falling apart, and people are trying to survive this nightmare. While many buildings have been destroyed and collapsed, only one apartment complex has survived. The residents fight for survival and to protect their only home, but new dangers arise, including personal conflict. It does admittedly sound very familiar. However, Concrete Utopia indeed does something interesting with this concept.

The opening sequence brilliantly sets up the tone and atmosphere of the narrative, so you know exactly what you’re getting into. Um Tae-Hwa focuses compellingly on the themes of human nature and social divide, especially how characters interact. One thing we can always agree on in Korean films is that the acting will always be one of the highlights. Everyone does a great job, particularly Lee Byung-Hun, who is the real standout from start to finish. He has an incredible screen presence, and you’re invested in his character throughout. It doesn’t change that everyone serves a purpose, especially with the world-building and flashbacks for us to know more about these people and their lives.

As a disaster movie, it’s pretty effective regarding special effects. When you first see the earthquake on screen, it’s pretty intense. The production design is phenomenal; you feel this is a post-apocalyptic world in real life. For the most part, it, unfortunately, does look a little gloomy with its drab colour palette. In this case, it sometimes works, considering that this situation is devastating for the survivors. Sometimes, the lack of tension doesn’t help the pacing. It’s not always bad because the director wants to focus more on emotional depth when characters face moral dilemmas. It takes a while to get going but picks itself back up after the set-up.

Overall, Concrete Utopia is still a solid movie that you would expect from the high quality of South Korean cinema. It’s not the next big revolutionary Korean film you hope it will be. Still, it’s a worthy cinematic experience on the big screen that elevates your standard disaster movie genre.

Steven Lee has always been passionate about movies. He also writes for Short Ends, Montreal Rampage, That Moment In and Borrowing Tape.

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