South Korea’s entry for the Best International Feature Oscar may not have made the shortlist, but would not have been out of place in such company. Tae-hwa Eom‘s disaster thriller goes beyond the normal tropes of the genre, becoming an incisive and often grimly amusing examination of human morality in a time of crisis. When a massive earthquake levels Seoul one apartment block is left miraculously standing amidst the devastation. With echoes of High-Rise, Lord of the Flies, and Snowpiercer, Eom’s supple film shows the best and worst of human nature, often displayed by the same people.

The residents of Hwang Gung Apartments find themselves low on reserves and thronged by the newly homeless they look for someone to lead them. After bravely putting out a fire in a ground floor apartment, Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun) is elected as delegate and begins by working to evict the ‘cockroach’ non-residents. Min-sung (Park Seo-joon) becomes Yeong-tak’s right hand man, but his wife Myung-hwa (Park Bo-young) is a kind soul who still tries to help those not blessed with the good fortune to have a living space.

Concrete Utopia has a familiar premise. Foregrounding a disparate group of strangers trying to maintain a makeshift community in the wake of catastrophe is a staple of the zombie genre, for example. What Eom does is thoroughly muddy the moral waters to an unusual degree. Right from the opening vote on whether to help the refugees or kick them out of the building, there are no choices or characters that are black and white. Each can be defended and the film never posits a set stance. Even the kindness of Myung-hwa can be criticised from a utilitarian standpoint.

Narrowing the focus to a small, well-defined group of residents within the larger group is a smart one as it allows the theme of human mutability to be fully explored. This is most clearly done through the character of Yeong-tak and Lee Byung-hun’s performance. The Joint Security Area and A Bittersweet Life icon gives a thoroughly quicksilver performance that spans the heroic to the dictatorial. There’s a Machiavellian shiftiness to Yeong-tak that also adds a diverting mystery element to the story, one of a few additions such as the use of dark humour, to stop the narrative being bogged down in the group’s dire situation.

Those additions are necessary as the film’s look is firmly set to the frigid and bleak, matching the sub-zero conditions. The production design is thoughtfully done as the residents become increasingly bedraggled and the differing hierarchies solidify and for some their apartments become as much cell as sanctuary. Splashes of colour are used as Scarlet Letter accusations daubed on doors. It’s not often pretty, but it’s highly effective.

The film loses a little momentum as it enters the home stretch and hope begins to fade, but it’s all tied together in a satisfying conclusion. Otherwise, the pacing is beautifully calibrated and its worldbuilding deftly established through the context of its characters. This focus on the complexity of its protagonists – brilliantly performed by its cast – is the film’s strongest suit and makes Concrete Utopia one of the more memorable recent efforts from South Korea.

Available on digital download from Mon 1 Apr 2024