Written and Directed by: Pil-Sung Yim, Jee-woon Kim
Starring: Doona Bae, Joon-ho Bong and Ji-hee Jin
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The end is just another beginning.
My knowledge of South Korean film is admittedly limited to its horror/thriller/crime offerings, so forgive me if I’ve made the mistake of assuming it’s all depressingly centered around guys pummeling each other with hatchets, knives, and hammers. By that same token, I guess it wasn’t all that weird that I was clutching a ton of valium as I fired up Doomsday Book, an anthology feature from Jee-woon Kim (who made a seminal “guys beating the shit out of each other“ movie in I Saw the Devil) and Pil-Sung Yim centered around nothing less than the end of the world. Imagine my surprise to learn that it’s actually features very little violence and that it’s actually a thoughtful, offbeat, and occasionally warm collection of stories that ponders the end of humanity from various perspectives.
Yim initially imagines what is currently the most cliché end times imaginable by conjuring up a zombie apocalypse in “Brave New World” (though, to his credit, he shot this way back in 2006). Ryu Seung-beom plays a pitiful, nerdy military scientist looking to strike up a romance with a girl (Go Joon-hee), but he unwittingly unleashes a virus when he discards a rotten apple that infects the Seoul’s meat supply. In the anthology’s only overt horror entry (fair warning if this is something you’ll get hung up on), Yim actually straddles the rom-com trappings along the way, and it remains fairly humorous all the way through, as he laces the apocalypse with some absurdist humor as everyone (especially news anchors) loses their shit.
The zombie stuff is mostly relegated to the background; in fact, the most horrific stuff involves the chilling, Contagion-esque efficiency with which the virus spreads through the country. Technology is the connective tissue that tenuously holds Doomsday Book together, and, here, it’s revealed as a double-edged sword that hastens society’s destruction. On the other hand, religion plays an obvious role here, as the rotten apple is a clear allusion to the garden of Eden (made all the more clear by the biblical quote that closes the segment). “Brave New World” might be a sneaky inversion of Genesis though, as it presents an Eden that’s already sprawling with too much knowledge and unfeeling human beings (the lead’s family is supremely horrible to him), so becoming a mindless zombie that’s stripped down to primal urges might somehow be preferable. The film attempts to do a lot during its short run-time, as it starts as a sweet, intimate tale that skewers its rom-com trappings before ballooning into a morbid farce; however, it finally makes its way back to the two leads and ends on an intriguing note.
Religion takes center stage in Kim’s lone entry, “Heavenly Creature,” which finds a young technician (Kim Kang-woo) called to a Buddhist temple to examine a service robot who claims to have achieved enlightenment. This is different territory for Kim, who directs a low-key, contemplative little number that ponders the complicated relationship between humanity and the technology that it creates. “Heavenly Creature” also makes some fairly obvious observations that mankind is an unconscious slave to its technology, a notion that would consciously scare them when a situation like this one presents itself. The segment presents some hard sci-fi elements that especially recall the writings of Asimov, and it’s cross-bred with Buddhist philosophy, a combination that results in a challenging, verbose climax.
Each anthology has an odd entry out, and “Heavenly Creature” is it here; obviously, the thematic thread involving technology fits in, but the segment doesn’t present a doomsday scenario, at least not a typical one. It’s set in the more distant future, perhaps later 21st century (a robot model hailing from the year 2017 is considered woefully obsolete), and it ultimately recalls the standard bearer for sci-fi in Frankenstein in the sense that the “monster” created by humanity isn’t monstrous at all. “Heavenly Creature” obviously also echoes Blade Runner a bit, too, and even comes to some similar conclusions as that film. A coda does complicate things a bit, too, so much so that I wouldn’t mind digging back into this one. Of all the segments, it’s certainly the most thematically rich and even borders on ponderous, but that’s not an altogether bad thing--it's just a pretty big change of pace when the previous part featured zombies gnawing on human flesh.
Yim returns for the final segment, “Happy Birthday,” which centers on a young girl who buys a replacement 8-ball for her dad after wrecking his other one. Two years later, the world is threatened by a giant asteroid, and the two events are connected since the asteroid actually resembles a giant 8-ball. Talk about a special delivery, I guess. Easily the silliest segment in the film, “Happy Birthday” still manages to relay some emotionally resonant moments as we watch this family ride out a possible apocalypse. The absurd, black humor from Yim’s earlier segment also returns, and he even resorts to having the media melt down on air again, so it’s easy to see this as the tonal and thematic companion to “Brave New World.” Following up “Heavenly Creature,” it feels a little slight, but I enjoyed the intimacy and the performances; Jin Ji-hee is especially delightful as Park Min-seo, the little girl who just wanted to stay out of trouble with her dad. This segment also isn’t very horrific, and it actually ends on a pretty uplifting and treacly note that again hammers its point home.
Almost all anthologies are a bit uneven, so of course Doomsday Book is as well; I’ve mentioned that some of it was finished back in 2006, but the entire film hasn’t been sitting on the shelf for that long, so don’t take that as a harbinger of its quality. Instead, Yim and Kim finished the first two parts years ago before funding fell through on the third part (originally conceived as a sci-fi musical update of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”). Yim eventually managed to film “Birthday Party” a couple years back to round it out, so Doomsday Book mostly feels like his movie, with Kim just sort of dropping in as a guest-director. There’s a loose connection in its themes and concept, of course, but tonally, it’s sort of all over the place. Whether it’s derived from content, theme, or tone, unity is an important aspect for anthologies, necessary to tie it all together; Doomsday Book has just enough of it, though it also kind of feels like a few separate episodes that even jump through genres. Luckily, most anthologies are a mixed bag of quality, but this one is pretty solid all the way through, as it has ideas, style, and fine performances mixed throughout. After earning praise on the festival circuit, it’s coming to DVD and Blu-ray this week. While there are no extra features, the disc boasts a stellar high definition presentation that does this slick and stylish film justice. Anthologies have been in the midst of a renaissance in the past couple of years, and Doomsday Book continues the comeback. Buy it!
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