Tuesday, July 10, 2012

NYAFF 2012: Doomsday Book (인류멸망보고서, In-lyoo-myeol-mang-bo-go-seo) 2012

Part of MKC's coverage of the 11th New York Asian Film Festival.

(by Peter Gutiérrez)

No doubt about it: it’s definitely a cliché to remark on how anthology films can be uneven – in fact, it’s probably also a cliché at this point to point out how commonplace such an observation is. Yet although this assessment applies to Doomsday Book, which gets its North American premiere Wednesday evening at NYAFF, the film is also refreshing in that I could see different viewers holding disparate ideas as to which are the stronger and weaker entries in this ambitious, three-part science-fiction extravaganza.

The opening story, “A Brave New World,” takes what seems like a well-worn zombie formula and, in the hands of Antarctic Journal’s Yim Pil-Sung,  fashions one of those optimal mixtures of the audaciously dark and the goofily humorous that can make Korean genre cinema so wonderful. That’s not to say that Yim’s goals are purely pulply, its ironical tone and light intellectualism are evident from the title. Taking its cue less from Shakespeare, or Huxley, and more from the Bible, this segment looks terrific and boasts some solid storytelling, so you’ll be forgiven for not noticing its more highbrow aspirations. Like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which played for both more laughs and more horror, “A Brave New World” is so adept at grabbing and holding your attention that you may be a bit disappointed when it seems satisfied in leading you into romance (!) territory and leaving you there.

Sure, I’m being somewhat reductionist, but the segment does have the tendency to come across as thematically facile even when those themes are admittedly well-executed.  Case in point: the way that that familial power struggles and resentments eventually play out in the context of the zombie outbreak. And it’s also somewhat facile to connect carnivorous zombie-dom to real-world, present-day gluttony and “mindless consumption.” Yes, these ideas are clothed in scenes that are memorably visceral, and the always-solid Ryu Seung-beom (Arahan, 2004; The ServantI, 2010; The Unjust, 2010) does not disappoint in the lead, a role for which he seems perfectly cast, so maybe you’ll see things as glass-half-full rather than half-empty.

If I appear to be gravitating to the latter that’s largely because the script overplays some of its hands. For example, TV coverage of the crisis is at first witty and incisive (and features a neat  cameo from director Bong Joon-ho), but later devolves into a skit about a philandering anchorman – pretty off-topic. To be clear, this is not a disaster by any means, but in a short film (which is what this is, kind of) every minute of runtime is even more precious than usual. Here the story would have been better served using that time to establish the powerful “we’re all connected” (even in death) theme that crowns all the apocalyptic spectacle.

So while you might not recognize the thoughtful ideas for all the pulpy enjoyment, the opposite is true of the second segment, “The Heavenly Creature.” Deservedly taking the “centerpiece” position in Doomsday Book, and not just because of writer-director Kim Ji-woon’s international stature, this paradoxically ultra-humanistic robot film wears its profundity on its sleeve – which might not prepare you for its ample genre pleasures when they do arise.

With a world-building elegance and non-techcentric focus that would have made Isaac Asimov proud, “The Heavenly Creature” represents that most thrilling kind of artistic exercise: the kind where we keep waiting, waiting, for the disappointing appearance of comforting “messages” or tropes, yet where the final vision outdoes all of our meager expectations. Does that mean that we’re dealing with a story that, while smart, is also a bit inaccessible and an approach that’s borderline pretentious?


For starters, Kim never allows the segment’s quiet moments to become overtly meditative (no pun intended, given the setting) – there’s simply too much drama and tension involved in discovering whether our point-of-view character will terminate a robot who can “think on his own” and can even boast “spiritual growth.” An on-site service tech for a monopolistic corporation, the protagonist initially argues that “It is just a robot like I’m just a technician” – his certainty thus compounding our doubt.

The setting, both monastic and futuristic, is beautifully realized, and the supporting cast effectively highlights the implicit contrast between the corporate and the spiritual. To Kim’s credit, though, the “types” that we encounter do not always behave according to their respective types; in addition, there’s a subtly intriguing dynamic because each side in this equation has a male elder and a younger, bluntly outspoken female underling. In short, there’s a lot going on here, both in cinematic and literary terms.

If my praise for “The Heavenly Creature” sounds a bit vague that’s because I’m hesitant to reveal too much, such is my esteem for it. Simply put, it’s not just the best new sci-fi movie you’re likely to encounter this year, but also arguably worth price of admission for Doomsday Book.

That’s not to say that the final segment “Happy Birthday,” about how a little girl who unwittingly causes the end of the world, is a total let-down. No, it’s more of a lightweight dessert, and therefore barely worth my commenting on relative to the preceding segments. To be sure, the art direction, visual effects, and overall production values provide little to complain about. Not to mention the directing (which is mostly above reproach). Well, it’s said to be a collaboration between the two previous filmmakers, but there can be little question that it feels more Yim than Kim.

Am I being dismissive, perhaps even unfair, in proffering this opinion? Perhaps. It’s just that outside of specific scenes in The Good, The Bad, and the Weird I haven’t known Kim to be so skilled at the comedic. Then again, this segment might just be a change-of-pace for him, and as a result refreshing for both the creator and the audience.

Still, “Happy Birthday”’s one-joke premise and its reliance on a single, mammoth visual gag make me consider it a tangy after-dinner treat following the profundity of “The Heavenly Creature.” No, there’s nothing wrong with a light crème brûlée following a gravy-heavy meat course and a flight of heavenly wines—just don’t expect something that you can really sink your teeth, or mind, into.

Doomsday Book will be screening at the New York Asian Film Festival on July 7th at 8:15pm and July 12th at 1:00pm.

Peter Gutiérrez, a U.S. correspondent for MKC, writes for Twitch and blogs on pop culture for School Library Journal.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).

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  1. Actually Kim Ji-woon did previously deal with comedy, in his debut feature 'The Quite Family' and his second film 'The Foul King'. And I've got to say he was quite skilful at it. So, may be 'Happy Birthday' could be him revisiting his old touch I guess.

    1. Great point -- thanks for adding this clarification to what was too simply or lazily expressed.

  2. Weren't the philandering news anchors in the third episode? I remember the media parody in the first being mostly about political infighting in lieu of addressing the zombie contagion.