Dystopian Thriller 'Concrete Utopia' Is Eye-Opening and Intense (and We Smell an Oscar Nomination)

Five out of Five stars

concrete utopia review
Climax Studio

Despite the influx of apocalyptic content that's been gracing our screens lately, we'll admit, we can't resist a thought-provoking disaster-thriller that explores society's deepest flaws.

Allow us to introduce Concrete Utopia, which premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Um Tae-hwa, it revolves around the survivors of a deadly earthquake that occurred in Seoul. With one upscale apartment complex left standing in the rubble, they all seek shelter in the building. But as time goes on and resources dwindle—with no rescue teams in sight—the residents elect a new leader and vote to evict the outsiders. Naturally, chaos ensues as the tenants fight to survive and "protect" their building.

Although most disaster films are driven by spectacle, Concrete Utopia takes a slightly different approach by offering a more intimate look at the characters in the complex. They're layered and flawed and faced with impossible circumstances. And it's through their stories that Tae-hwa sheds light on the darker side of human nature.

It's worth noting that these characters aren't painted as purely good or evil, but rather nuanced in their internal struggle. They're forced to deal with a tragedy that, ultimately, brings out the worst in them. And as they grow more desperate, all morals are thrown the window, proving that humans are more inclined to only look out for themselves when their lives are at stake.

For example, there's Min-Seong, played brilliantly by Park Seo-joon. He's introduced as a quiet husband and public servant who gets recruited to join a committee of men who enforce the rules and venture into the wastelands for food. But over time, and to his wife's dismay, he hardens and goes to more extreme measures for the sake of survival—and to be accepted by his leader.

The same can be said for Lee Byung-hun's Yeong-tak, who starts off as a quiet, unsuspecting resident but morphs into a cold-hearted leader who will stop at nothing to defend the apartment building and protect its residents.

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Climax Studio

Another timely topic this film tackles really well is social inequality. There's ongoing tension between different classes, or more specifically, the tenants and the "cockroaches." In the film, the outsiders (or those who aren't apartment owners) are forced out after the vast majority of residents vote to leave them stranded in the cold. It's an unsettling reminder of the real-life effects of income inequality, where the have-nots are often sidelined and left to fend for themselves.

On a hopeful note, however, Min-Seong's kind-hearted wife, Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), strives to stick to her values while grappling with such a toxic leader and a broken community. Myeong-hwa easily stands out as the rare modern-day Mother Theresa, staying level-headed and helping those in need despite the risks.

concrete utopia review 3
Climax Studio

As you'd expect, the overall tone of the film is quite dark and bleak, but in earlier scenes, there's some quirky humor thrown in for comic relief. There's also the strong chemistry between Park Seo-jun and Park Bo-young, and the latter's sweet bond with a young child—so it's not all doom and gloom. But it's a riveting thriller that'll challenge how you see human nature and morality.

Concrete Utopia is not available to stream just yet, but it's currently showing in theaters.

concrete utopia pw pick
Climax Studio

PureWow Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

Concrete Utopia is so much more than a disaster film. The wreckage and corpses mostly serve as a backdrop while Tae-hwa zeroes in on social ethics and the mystery of human nature. It comes as no surprise that South Korea entered this film for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards—and we're convinced they have a solid chance at winning it.

For a full breakdown of PureWow's entertainment rating system, click here.

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nakeisha campbell bio

Associate Editor, News and Entertainment

Nakeisha has been interviewing celebrities and covering all things entertainment for over 8 years, but she has also written on a wide range of topics, like career...