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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

New York City based Claus Mueller reviews film festivals and related issues and serves as a  senior editor for Society and Diplomatic Review.

As a professor emeritus he covered at Hunter College / CUNY social and media research and is an accredited member of the US State Department's Foreign Press Center.



CONCRETE UTOPIA (2023) Um Tae-hwa. South Korea - Toronto International Film Festival

Um Tae-hwa’s CONCRETE UTOPIA, premiered in South Korea on August 9, 2023 and was unanimously nominated by a jury for the 2024 Oscars. Shown first in North America at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) at was produced for an estimated $18 million, but  CONCRETE UTOPIA earned close to $17 million during its first screening week in Korea. The film is based in part of the webtoon “Pleasant Bullying” transformed by Um Tae-hwa  and his team his team into an extraordinary cinematic creative venture. Its subsequent commercial and critical success is driven by superb acting from well-established and often award-winning actors, a unique dystopian story, excellent monochrome photography, outstanding realistic sets, and the close link to the real estate appeal of high-rise luxury housing in Seoul to Koreans. Life in such an apartment is their aspiration.

Brief images in the beginning of the film show the background of the heart of Seoul crowded by tall buildings. In Um Tae-hwa’s disaster drama, this skyline disappears due to a catastrophic earthquake that kills most residents and leaves massive destruction behind. The only large complex left standing in the destroyed cityscape is the Hwang Gung Apartment building. Transactions between the residents of Hwang and other desperate survivors of the quake provide the matrix for this increasingly dark and despairing film. During the first part of the story there is still hope of outside help and an optimistic trust in collective survival.

The residents of the building organize a steering committee to handle the post catastrophe affairs. They elect Young-ta, played masterfully by Lee Byung-hun, as their Resident Delegate to act as the leader. Despite some dissenting views they decided to change the Hwang Gung building by-laws, and those not having apartments are not allowed to live in the building. Opponents suggest that residents should first find out how to live with the outsiders. Initially, most Hwang Gung residents seemingly interact amicably, but tensions and fights soon erupt. Food allocation for active members of the steering committee is claimed to be higher than those for regular residents. The issues of not having enough food and heat for all building residents are raised and long-term solutions to the problem questioned. Questions of the illegal ownership status of apartments are articulated requesting action. Such apartments are closed, marked visibly in red and whoever lives there is kicked out of the building. Young-ta, and other managing members of the steering committee. turn increasingly aggressive. An early promise of providing empty apartments to outsiders, now massed in front of Hwand, is not honored. Confrontations between residents guarding the building and outsiders trying to force entry becomes common. Meanwhile, winter temperatures create freezing surroundings for those with no space to live in. Members of the steering committees and some residents are split between those who want to help the destitute survivors assembled in front of the building and those embracing strict punitive measures against them, including violence.

With food supplies running low, sharing food with individuals or families accommodated “illegally” in the building is severely punished.  A young couple part of the steering committee reflects  the growing split between moral reasoning to help the starving and those embracing survival above all ethical concerns. When the wife, a nurse, is caught providing food to outsiders, her husband, a former administrator tells her that they can be forced to leave when doing so. As he reminds her staying outside means freezing to death. They escape punishment when he agrees to work longer hours for the steering committee. Killing outsiders guarding food supplies in abandoned buildings during foraging trips becomes acceptable and few object to it. Life without food in the apartment building and in the rubble of destroyed ones they experience as hell. Initial empathy with victims has disappeared and some building residents kill themselves to escape the moral dilemma they face, They cannot bear living among people who no longer consider others as human beings and consider the mass of outsiders in front of their building and the few hiding in them as cockroaches to be squashed. Empathy has disappeared. An audience for such an apocalyptic representation will be readily available.

Claus Mueller,  New York



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