Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labour of the actors and other creatives involved in the project(s) mentioned here, Pages and Pictures would not exist. Pages and Pictures stands firmly behind SAG-AFTRA members as they fight for fair labour conditions.
Concrete Utopia is much more than a post-apocalyptic story about humanity’s survival. It is a meditation on collective living and the power dynamics that seep through even disaster scenarios. This is also a kind of anthropological study of how condominium culture continues to impact South Korean society. On a broad scale, this movie is a very authentic look at survival scenarios and how they are no match for those who seek any semblance of power.
It makes sense to start with the central themes that this story explores. This commentary on collective living situations is instantly recognisable. While, of course, this is very specific to South Korean apartment complex living, there are absolutely universal truths that are clear to anyone who has ever lived in any type of complex. There are characters here that are instantly recognizable in their quest to use a tiny bit of power for their own gain.
Each character in this story contains an entire ecosystem. The conflicting motives are what bring the overall story together. It’s more than believable that even at the end of the world, there would still be those jockeying for power and control. Kim Sun-young’s performance, in particular, is the perfect way to illustrate that after an immediate crisis, there are those who would fight diligently to return to some kind of status quo, regardless of any new reality. Her character, Keum-ae, is less of a villain than an anti-hero in that she lets her desire for the status quo prevent her from doing what is best for herself and her community.
Concrete Utopia manages to pull out compelling characters in the midst of this packed ensemble. This is no easy task, with so many stories and character motivations vying for attention. While some of the storylines, including mistaken and stolen identities, may defy belief, others are endearing. In particular, the romance is an endearing one to watch unfold. It’s commendable that the story is even able to include an understated romance that’s worth rooting for in the midst of the chaos.
The stakes of this story may first appear gargantuan. However, it’s at its strongest when it focuses on the deeply personal drama that plays out amidst the chaos. Watching these characters just try their best to get through each moment reads as incredibly authentic. The desire to return to “normalcy”, regardless of the consequences, is a deeply timely reflection on human nature.
Finally, this movie probably didn’t need its entire runtime. However, the action ensures that the story doesn’t drag. If anything, the movie could have been ever so slightly more selective when choosing which characters and stories to focus on. There is so much talent to choose from, it’s no doubt a difficult choice. However, if there’s anything that could be improved upon, it’s in telling fewer stories in greater detail.
Concrete Utopia is a disaster epic with a lot to love. It is a compelling social commentary that never once takes itself too seriously or forgets what’s really important. In many ways, this movie reads like the beginning of a much larger story in this post-apocalyptic universe. Despite the life-and-death stakes, there’s something so deeply personal about this story.
Concrete Utopia was featured at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.