Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Seoul Under Siege: 12.12: The Day and Concrete Utopia

As mentioned in This Week's Next Week post, this was an unusually busy week for Asian cinema here in Boston, with six films from three SE Asian countries actually playing in AMC multiplexes in the city proper, plus the Indian films. It's partly a function of studios releasing a whole ton of nothing between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I also kind of wonder if AMC is sort of poking around these two theaters roughly a mile apart and seeing what distinguishes their audiences. The results of this weekend's experiment suggests that there's more interest in Korean films at Causeway Street than Boston Common - not-bad turnout for something with no advertising on Friday night versus pretty much just me on Saturday afternoon - but that could also have something to do with 12.12: The Day being a current release - and massive hit - in South Korea while Concrete Utopia opened in its home territory back in August, so students could have seen it then and had months to pirate.

(Meanwhile, Boston Common got a trailer and standee for Noryang: Deadly Sea but Causeway street didn't, for all that means!)

Anyway, it's an interesting sort of split double feature that makes one wonder how the true-life events in 12.12 influenced Utopia, in that they both feature would-be dictators who don't exactly seem to start with that as their goal but get pretty far despite kind of being lunkheads. As Americans, we've always favored the conniving, opportunistic genius (who may secretly be behind it all), and it's been frustrating - galling, even - to see that often, these guys are not so bright. South Korea, though, has lived with some of these guys, and it strikes me that if you look at their cinema, there's a pretty big clear pattern of cynicism about their autocrats, from royals to future post-apocalyptic warlords. I've probably known this since The President's Last Bang, a movie I love enough that I initially approached 12.12 as a sequel, at least subconsciously.

Looks like one more day of Concrete Utopia (Wednesday 20 December), but 12.12: The Day is booked straight into January, in part because nobody releases anything the week after Christmas.

Seoul-ui bom (12.12: The Day)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2023 in AMC Causeway Street #3 (first-run, laser DCP)

It's a curious sensation to watch a film, get keyed up at the thrills (or, in the case of Full River Red, slapstick escalation), and then realize from the captions at the end that the film's local audience probably knew exactly where it was heading from the start: You are not, necessarily, enjoying the same movie that the filmmakers made, although given than 12.12: The Day and Full River Red were two of the biggest hits of the year in South Korean and China, they clearly don't need to rely on an unknown outcome. Which is a long way of saying that while I enjoyed 12.12 as a suspenseful military thriller, it clearly also works if your knowledge of 20th Century Korean history extends beyond the broad strokes.

For those lacking even the broad strokes, President Park Chung-hee was assassinated on 26 October 1979, ending 17 corrupt years in office. Heading up the investigation is Chun Doo-gwang (Hwang Jung-min), a pugnacious general who was also the leader of the Hanahoe secret society within the Korean military. In an attempt to counter Chun's influence, Army Chief of Staff Jeong Sang-ho (Lee Sung-min) appoints a reluctant general Lee Tae-sin (Jung Woo-sung) as head of the Capital Garrison Command, responsible for defending Seoul itself, and plans to diminish Hanahoe's influence by assigning Chun and ihs compatriots to backwaters as the investigation winds down. In response, Chun sends troops to arrest Jeong, who was present at the assassination, on trumped-up charges; without new President Choi Han-gyoo (Jung Dong-hwan) authorizing them, Lee recognizes this as a power grab, and mobilizes the forces not controlled by Hanahoe to arrest Chun.

A bit of Wikipedia diving indicates that "Lee Tae-sin" is a composite character primarily based upon General Jang Tae-wan, although most of the rest appear to be the actual figures involved. Director Kim Seong-su and his co-writers likely streamline the history in other ways; look away from the subtitles for a moment and you might miss that the coup was timed to interfere with announcements planned for the next day, for instance. Indeed, there are moments where the sheer pettiness of it all may take one aback - is Kim suggesting that General Chun is putting all this into action, with a large portion of the army backing him, as a tantrum brought on by being sidelined? Well, perhaps not explicitly, but as with Ridley Scott's Napoleon, there's certainly an intent to home in on how these "strongmen" often seem to arise less through brilliance than being in the right place at the right time, with the sort of amorality that lets them put troops in harm's way and not worry much about losses.

Actor Hwang Jung-min takes the idea that Chun is a small man with a loud voice and runs with it, spending much of the movie practically screaming at people trying to rein him in, manifesting a chip on his shoulder where Tae-sin and others who attended college rather than passing through the military academy are concerned, or almost ready to scratch his skin off while meeting with the President, as if unable to believe that this frail-looking civilian has the power to tell him no. It's initially easy to read this as stupidity, but as insecure as this picture of Chun might be, he's not that; he may be a blunt object, but he's one canny enough to know where smashing through norms can be a superpower. It's what makes Jung Dong-hwan's General Lee an interesting counterpoint; he's measured and reluctant, and there's a delight to how he can't entirely hide his distaste for Chun and his gang of thugs, with a bit of hubris to how he underestimates the Hananoe group. Jung doesn't play to the balcony quite so much as Hwang does, but his performance is pointed and quietly charismatic in a way that lets one cast Lee as the protagonist and Chun as the scenery-chewing villain.

It will, of course, be the result of the conflict that ultimately decide whom history will cast in those roles, and Kim stages them very well indeed, no small thing considering that both sides are ROK soldiers and thus can't be easily color-coded. Though he's not entirely immune to some gimmicks - he and the effects crew occasionally augment maps of battle plans with digital overlays that occasionally make them look like anachronistic flat-panel screens, even if it's clear the characters can't see them - he and his crew know how to suggest the to suck people in: He creates the sense of things happening in real time without stating it, for instance, and gives the proper sort of recurring momentary attention to things which obvious effect events (how will the United States and North Korea react to all this troop movement) without overcomplicating the action. The combat is well-staged, with Kim pulling the neat trick of making the action clear to the audience but necessarily blurry to forces who don't have the sort of real-time communications and telemetry that exists in the twenty-first century. The moments where things rest on individual action amid all the automatic weapons fire seem especially precarious.

It does all exhaust the audience at certain points, when the sheer number of senior officers to keep track of starts to pile up and the battle starts to turn but still needs to be played out. As with Napoleon, this film is often committed enough to the theme of these generals being thuggish that it's hard to see how they could inspire loyalty. Even with that, 12.12 is an often-electrifying snapshot of its events, even for those who know how it all ends.

Concrete Utopia (Konkeuriteu yutopia)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 December 2023 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

Hey, have you heard the one about the small community of post-apocalyptic survivors who scavenge the ruins, turn on outsiders, and eventually display humanity's worst traits as the situation gets tighter? Oh, you have? Well, of course you have - it's a classic! The folks who made Concrete Utopia have, too, and they retell it well enough, although I suspect that Concrete Utopia lost a bit of what makes this version special somewhere in the adaptation to cinema.

Mere moments into the film, a massive earthquake strikes Seoul, practically leveling the city during an especially cold winter, although one apartment block - Hwang Gung Apartments - remains upright. Up on the eighth floor, civil servant Min-Seong (Park Seo-Joon) and wife Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), a nurse, figure they have supplies for a week, but still take in a woman and her son when nobody else would answer the door. Min-seong also rushes into a burning apartment to fight the fire alongside Kim Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun), who is taking care of his ailing mother (Kang Ae-shim) on the ninth floor. As help fails to materialize, the residents start to organize, with Yeong-tak as "Building Delegate", although another resident, Keung-ae (Kim Sung-young), does most of the organization. Eventually, the residents vote to expel outsiders, while Yeong-tak leads expeditions to forage for supplies. It's a precarious situation, and that's before the arrival of Moon Hye-woon (Park Ji-hu), a teenage resident who had been away from home when the disaster struck.

The credits describe this as adapting the second volume of a webtoon, which simultaneously could explain a lot and seems deeply confusing: There's an opening segment about how renting rather than purchasing apartments makes society unstable (but in terms of people being social-climbing strivers rather than potentially having their life collapse under them), suggesting that maybe other volumes had a different focus, but also that the series must have taken a heck of a turn after the first volume. It's structurally weird in other places, with two flashbacks to the earthquake that are jarring because the opening implies it happened at night, and also because the one featuring one character has much less obvious effect on their actions than the one featuring another; it's also odd that Myeong-hwa doesn't have one despite being just as central a character as Min-seong and Yeong-tak.

Those flashbacks to before the earthquake are also kind of odd-feeling, visually, less like a contrast to the present than bits of some other movie spliced in. The filmmakers have a bit of trouble finding the right tone in a few other places; such as when a turn to more obvious satire briefly interests (a classic South Korean genre-jump), but then the film settles back into the gray and morose. All of the disaster movie stuff feels a bit familiar, like nobody came up with really novel scenarios but just did the standards. It's ably-executed enough, at least, selling the on-the-ground reality well enough that one never spends a lot of time asking what's happening, say, five kilometers away from Hwang Gung Apartments or if there's a functioning government anywhere. The irony-to-principle balance in the finale is way off.

By coincidence - they were released three months apart in Korea - Concrete Utopia is an interesting pairing with the other Korean film hitting North America this weekend (12.12: The Day) in that both of them feature men taking power seemingly not so much cunning as being well-placed and amoral, with Lee Byung-hun toning down the movie star charisma to make Yeong-tak look kind of woozy, like he's stumbled into this situation with PTSD and a possible concussion but those don't dull everything that is problematic about him. Park Bo-young's Meong-hwa is the opposite side of the spectrum, practical but believably rising to the various challenges to her basic decency; the actress doesn't have many flashy scenes until the end, but she always gives the impression that she's considering things before acting. Park Seo-joon, meanwhile, has to play his nominal protagonist as weaker, and it's uncomfortably easy to recognize oneself in his good intentions that can nevertheless be swayed. There's a nice cast around them, too, especially Park Ji-hu whose late entry feels like it can change the game just through attitude as opposed to what Hye-woon means for the plot, although the situation is fraught enough that there's not a whole lot for the rest to do, just different shades of being weighed down.

It's never quite boring, and it's often good enough that one can easily imagine a movie where the whole thing is as good as its best part. Despite that, Concrete Utopia never quite that movie, playing much closer to standard genre fare despite aiming for importance.

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