A post-apocalyptic narrative morosely overlooking the never-ending rubble around a towering apartment building doesn’t immediately sound like something you’d relate any of your worldly experiences to. But South Korea’s entry for the 96th Academy Awards pulls you into its dystopian landscape as smoothly as you’d hopefully get accustomed to a far worse life should a similar tragedy befall ours. Um Tae-hwa contemplates the inescapable and, in extreme circumstances, glaring follies of mankind in the fallen concrete jungle of earthquake-struck Seoul. The result is as though you’ve swallowed a rock, and with each turn, it takes through your helpless intestines, Concrete Utopia makes its devastating presence known to you.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In The Film?
There’s not much to judge, really. A large chunk of Seoul’s crowd comforting themselves with the faint dream of luxury in affordable apartments is something middle-class people in most corners of the world will easily associate themselves with. But what happens when an enraged earthquake swallows the city whole and leaves behind just one reminder of normalcy? It’s taken Min-sung a lot to make it out alive and wake up next to his wife, Myung-hwa, in the only apartment complex standing large as though it were the last hope of survival amidst the ruined sandcastle of civilization. Calling him selfish for being reluctant to let a little homeless kid and his mom into his apartment may not be easy when you take one simple fact into account: kindness often takes a backseat when survival itself is in question. But one thing does get clear by the time Myung-hwa dismisses her husband’s reluctance and takes the family in anyway: despite the two evidently being in love, in ways they’re polar opposites. When the survivors from nearby buildings crowd Hwang Gung apartments, it understandably becomes paramount for the residents to decide which path would be the best to take. They could choose the path less trodden—self-sacrificing kindness—spreading the scarce resources even more thinly so everyone could get a shot at survival. Or, they could opt for the kind of brutality that’s not an easy thing to question when it is every man for himself—kicking the non-residents out in the brutal cold where a world of hunger, pain, and unavoidable death awaits them.
How Did They Choose The Apartment Delegate?
If you’re privy to the pop-culture post-apocalyptic universe’s modus operandi, you already know that it’s order that people seek when everything has fallen apart. The sheepish need to follow the doctrines of a mass-chosen leader almost scratches a certain phantom itch—a residual compulsion to be told what to do. So at a time when fights are breaking out between the outsiders and the residents, people are getting stabbed, and fires are breaking out, there comes a point when they can’t just let things go the way they’ve been going. A leader is what they’re seeking—someone who’d be brave enough to stand guard against any attack that might befall their precious building. And who better to lead them than the man who went out of his way and valiantly risked his own life to put out a fire? Now, Yeong-tak doesn’t know the first thing about what to say or do in a position that demands constructive authority. Looking at the helpless faces of his subjects who are awaiting his first command, all he can come up with is something so generic that it’d get him kicked out of the building if the circumstances weren’t so dire. Rest assured, I’m not too keen on stringing you along the way Yeong-tak wickedly manipulates these people. And right now seems to be just as good a time as any to tell you that the man they’ve chosen as their delegate, someone to slap an approved or denied sticker on the outsiders, is secretly an outsider himself.
Why Are The Outsiders Kicked Out?
Judging by the way the residents lash out at a man blatantly tabling the idea that the outsiders be kicked out, you can’t really call them bad guys per se. But the same people nod their heads in agreement and lap it up when the same idea is communicated in a way that rationalizes the urgency of the situation. So a vote it is. Very democratic! But is it really a democracy when those who’d be ejected into the cold brutality of post-apocalyptic Seoul are in no way involved in the decision-making process? Sure, there’s no way you can blame them for looking out for themselves. But however justified their decision may be and however tied their hands may be when they’re faced with a life-and-death situation, there’s something almost primal—almost animalistic—about just how readily they agree to sentence the outsiders to death. The way they take up their makeshift weapons to rid their building of the unwanted appendages draining their resources tells you a lot about the innate selfishness of man. An instinct that is so devoid of morals, kindness, and empathy that when it’s in its most active state, the bearer of it is hardly even human anymore.
How Does Yeong-Tak Transform Into A Dictator?
There’s something about uninhibited authority that fundamentally changes a man. Now, I’m not saying that Yeong-tak ever seemed stable. He’d do just about anything to hold on to his position as the man who’d be indispensable to the building. Running into a burning room—not a care in the world—that was a man whose kindness I’d put my money on. But the man who growls at the outsider when his head’s cracked open by one of them is simply erratic. Sure, he gets the process going. The residents are happy. Looking up to the man who’s defended their safety with his life, mistaking his wildly violent impulses as selfless bravery, they’ve come up with rules and laws that establish a kind of system that keeps it all running as smoothly as it can. It must’ve been a rather sarcastic choice on the director’s part to poke fun at their way of life with a college brochure-like montage of happy faces. Smiling as they go about their days scavenging for food, water, and everything they’d need to keep things running, they leave nothing behind for other survivors. They were elated to be dumping their waste on a side of the building, unbothered about how they’d deal with the mountain of garbage in the absence of government waste management.
And in the midst of all this, shedding his insecurities and lack of confidence, Yeong-tak has truly embraced the incontestable authority the residents have bestowed upon him. He’s seen as a savior, and you can’t even say that they’re entirely wrong in acknowledging his contribution. Standing as the symbol of capitalism, complete with blatant notes of ableism, Hwang Gung apartments enforces rules regarding ration and shelter privileges in a way that hits a bit too close to home. Empowered by an army of young men, it’s not that Yeong-tak doesn’t work to earn his keep, but he’s so blind to the privileges his healthy physical state grants him that he doesn’t mind being stingy in giving food to those who are unable to contribute as much labor. That might seem fair to you. But there’s a certain vicious pleasure that the man undeniably derives from crushing those who, for whatever reason, aren’t in a position to question him or defend themselves. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have beaten the poor shopkeeper to death after looting the food that he was saving for himself and his family. A government that very conveniently forgets to rescue people from the deadly rubble of the earthquake’s aftermath doesn’t really leave itself a lot of room to demand patriotism. But the fact that the residents of the last standing apartment, governed by the extremist leader, would be just as cruel to the lesser-privileged people as he is only proves just how easy it is for mankind to be possessive over things that they have access to circumstantially. And it’s this dark, innate selfishness of his subjects that Yeong-tak’s ruthless appetite for power is fuelled by.
What Happens To The Residents Of Hwang Gung Apartments?
Subtlety isn’t always an indication of depth. What’s refreshing about the communication technique here is that Concrete Utopia doesn’t spend much time polishing it up to suit a more refined palate. It takes an impressively self-aware film to establish a point and keep coming back to it to drive it home without a worry in the world about going overboard. Without shying away from the kind of melodrama that proves to be a rather efficient tool in balancing the moods in the context of the greater message, Um Tae-hwa proves that a film can be an all-around entertainer and still leave you with thoughts that’ll haunt you for days to come. Yeong-tak is a formidable antagonist through and through.
But keeping with the blanket tone of the film, which is evidently wary of the binaries of good and evil, our antagonist is someone who’s also been victimized by the same things that he’s now a mouthpiece for. It wasn’t particularly subtle when, early in the film, it was mentioned that in a tragedy like this, a person’s past is of little to no relevance. It’s this very statement that Yeong-tak, a murderer, took to heart and decided to mold his future around. It’s been a while since, in a fit of justified rage, he murdered the man who scammed him—the same man whose identity and ailing mother he stole to get a roof over his head in this crisis. I guess you could call him lucky considering the earthquake took place just as he was pondering the consequences of the crime he’d just committed. But lucky isn’t something I’d call a man who ran over to save his wife and daughter only to find them buried under chunks of concrete. While it’s undeniable that a tragedy like that can fundamentally change a man, I doubt that Yeong-tak was a poster boy for morals even before everything went to hell.
There’ll always be rebels when a terrifying dictatorship takes over. And in the case of Concrete Utopia, that fearless warrior of kindness is Myung-hwa. It does take her a while to find kindred spirits in the stomach of the concrete giant that is Hwang Gung apartments, but as soon as she learns that some people have been secretly harboring outsiders, she jumps in to help. Sadly, though, her secret efforts to keep them fed and safe are soon caught by Yeong-tak. Had he been a man genuinely concerned about the building’s rules being broken, he could have opted for a much gentler approach than ambushing them, humiliating them, calling them cockroaches, and kicking them out. For someone who’s lived a life deprived of comfort and luxury, it would’ve been far more likely for Yeong-tak to find it in his heart to empathize with these people. But there’s a far darker side to being obsessed with what one has never even dreamed of attaining. Something that isn’t actively felt but festers like an asymptomatic disease is a hatred for one’s own kind. Yeong-tak has plunged so deep into denial that his hatred for the life he’s lived is taken out on the outsiders. And when that isn’t enough, he allows himself the wicked pleasure of having the rebels cower before him and apologize.
It would be easy to term Min-sung a coward for falling to his knees and pledging his undying loyalty to Yeong-tak. But all he’s ever done has been centered around one primary intention: keeping his wife safe. It takes the unlikeliest emergence of the real Yeong-tak’s neighbor for the dictator’s disgusting truth to be out in the open. The man’s gone as far as to break into Hye-won’s apartment to intimidate her into keeping her mouth shut. But truth has a way of catching up. I’d call it a wicked design of fate that gets the scavenging group attacked on their way back. It makes for the most dramatic premise for Mr. Delegate’s image to be dragged through the mud in front of his faithful followers. But does he acknowledge the wrongs he’s done? Concrete Utopia isn’t interested in giving us a ridiculously convenient ending like that. When a man like that is attacked, it’s only normal that his fangs will be out. Had the rabid group of attackers dropped by a little earlier than they did, Hye-won’s life could’ve been saved from his unhinged wrath.
When life itself is about to bid him goodbye, though, he’s just an odd homeowner, someone who’s come to achieve a goal through nasty means. The illusion of establishing a peaceful society of sorts in the last standing building in Seoul was always bound to dissipate. Anarchy always catches on. In the quiet chaos of it all, Min-sung getting stabbed and eventually dying in his sleep beside the woman who meant the world to him takes us right back to the words exchanged between him and Yeong-tak. There’s nothing more patriotic than protecting your own family. But in the ruined state that Seoul finds itself in, the meaning of family has drastically shifted. Sure, it is, in fact, every man for himself in a crowd fighting tooth and nail to make sure he wakes up the next day. That doesn’t, however, negate the existence of those who recognize the pragmatic yet emotionally charged advantages of unity. Myung-hwa’s heartbreaking shock at having the first brush with kindness after a while only speaks to the numb PTSD of living in a state where you have to earn the right to live. The state has fallen. Much like the titled remnants of what once was a dream home to a lot of people on the list. If only the residents of Hwang Gung apartments had enlightened themselves in time and recognized that in a crisis, resources are for all. And there’s only more assistance and far fewer threats when more people are included in your makeshift family.