At The Movies: In Concrete Utopia, an apartment block becomes a lifeboat in a sea of ruin

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At The Movies: In Concrete Utopia, an apartment block becomes a lifeboat in a sea of ruin

Concrete Utopia (PG13)

130 minutes, opens on Thursday
3 stars

The story: An earthquake has destroyed much of the planet. In a wintry Seoul, the Imperial Palace Apartments is the only structure left standing, giving its lucky residents shelter in a city overflowing with the homeless. Civil servant Min-seong (Park Seo-joon) and his wife, nurse Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), and other residents unite to protect their resources. In their midst is Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun), a resident with a mysterious past. Adapted from Kim Soong-nyung’s webtoon Pleasant Bullying.

In recent years, there has been a great run of movies that tackle social inequality. Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning black comedy Parasite (2019) contrasted two families from opposite ends of the money spectrum, while Ruben Ostlund’s satire Triangle Of Sadness (2022), winner of the Palme d’Or, made a doomed yacht represent a world hopelessly split by race and caste.

In Concrete Utopia, South Korea’s entry to the Best International Feature Film category at 2024’s Academy Awards, a group that used to be middle-class is suddenly wealthy beyond measure because they own the most valuable resource in a shattered world – four walls and a roof.

The quake that breaks the planet is shown, but only briefly. There is nothing in this movie that comes close to the extended action set pieces of a special effects spectacular such as, say, San Andreas (2015).

Instead, South Korean co-writer and director Um Tae-hwa puts the spotlight on the aftermath. Specifically, on the moral choices made by the block’s residents. South Korean star Lee’s enigmatic character of Yeong-tak becomes the focus of attention – he has something they need.

Amid strong performances all round, Lee is a fine actor who specialises in tight-lipped tough guys like Yeong-tak, Front Man in the award-winning series Squid Game (2021), and a dozen other similar roles in a long career.

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