Concrete Utopia Review

Concrete Utopia
Concrete Utopia
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South Korea’s official Oscar entry for 2023 is set in the last remaining apartment block in Seoul after an apocalyptic earthquake ravages the city and uses one high-rise building – a “concrete utopia” according to its title – to stand as nothing but all of humanity. People are selfish, violent beings who tend to be cruel when they feel even slightly threatened, as understood by director and co-writer Um Tae-hwa. Or if you wish: Concrete Utopia is Lord of the Flies with a view.

The story is about young coupleneither of whom knows what to do with themselves any longer these days follow their conscience or the will of others; Min-seong (Park Seo-joon) and Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young). Myeong-hwa is a nurse whose commitment toward healing the sick and alleviating suffering has no boundaries whatsoever. What about Min-seong? Well, he is not sure yet especially when he starts working alongside interim resident representative Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun) and his quasi-fascist Anti-Crime Force. As a character whose true nature is patiently revealed over the course of the film, Lee plays Yeong-tak as a craven, desperate grasper – king of the cockroaches in a building that’s full of them, both literally and metaphorically.

Concrete Utopia on that note also builds its fictional world through sharp jump-cuts vignettes that chart out how Imperial Palace keeps running rather than necessarily creating sense of place within this claustrophobic space. Each day, Yeong-tak’s men go out into the rubble strewn streets looking for food and fuel which gets rationed out by committee then distributed accordingly. Other similar groups handle medicine, waste disposal, or even recreation for residents alone who seem determinedly apart from their neighbors among other things. Outside, there are heaps of frozen corpses, yet the people who reside in Imperial Palace have convinced themselves they are “chosen.”

At its best, Concrete Utopia leaves the viewer wondering what s/he would do if they could make choices like those made by its characters. Some of these observations even have a touch of dark humor in them: As one scene shows a huddle of well-fed aunties berating an emaciated refugee for her tone. At its worst, it’s just obvious, like the shot of a “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself” sign on the wall of an apartment whose residents are being beaten for harboring “outsiders.”

Concrete Utopia is based on a webtoon – specifically, the second half of Kim Soongnyung’s Pleasant Outcast – and it thus betrays its episodic origins with multiple overlapping characters and storylines throughout. There is also a sense in which Um’s direction seems influenced by animation as seen in dynamic compositions that fill the frame. Though always polished, his style can be quite showy: The angles are dramatic. The color grading is aggressive (gray-blue, for the apocalypse). This makes it feel like thick cinema pretending to be substantial – mostly true given how much work goes into it.

The movie has a problem, it is so crowded with people, lots of movement, and piles of artistically placed junk. So much is going on at the same time that the weight one feels overcomes him or her as if they are inside an overloaded concrete Utopia which eventually does not crumble under its own weight but strains its foundations at the end of the narrative. This broad allegory will obviously be unwieldy with so many things stuffed in, again. But there is one thing that still remains lucid, coherent, and driving throughout this disaster film disaster is human nature.


Concrete Utopia is a disaster film about human nature. The story takes place in the last remaining apartment block standing in Seoul after a massive earthquake, and this well-produced character-driven drama is just too much to take in all at once.

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