It is said that the fear of losing one’s life can turn a man into a monster. But what if becoming a monster can save a person’s life? What choice is he going to make? Will he try to protect his humanity? Or will he let go of his empathy just to live another day? It is the question that Um Tae-hwa’s Korean film, Concrete Utopia, frequently asks throughout its runtime. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the film revolves around the residents of a concrete building named Hwang Gung Apartments. Call it destiny or just a mere coincidence, but it is the only building that survived the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that hit the Earth. Everyone who lost their homes in the disaster looks upon Hwang Gung residents to give them food and shelter, as they are the only ones left with a roof over their heads. But it is the greed of these utopian residents that gives the film its central conflict. In the end, it is not a matter of survival but a question of redemption. Will the characters of Concrete Utopia be able to redeem their humanity? Let’s break down the film and explain what the ending could mean.
What Caused the Earthquake?
While the film didn’t clearly explain the reason behind such sudden tremors, it did give us a hint. The Astronomical Research Institute had predicted a Gemini meteor shower before the calamity took place, and it could be speculated that maybe outer space stones hit the Earth’s surface, leading to an earthquake in the impacted region that destroyed the entire city overnight. However, considering the fact that no neighboring countries tried to help the survivors, we could entertain the possibility that the entire planet faced the consequences of a meteor attack, therefore killing millions of people across the globe. Whatever the cause might be, the catastrophe forced humanity to start once again from the age of barbarism, and that is what we witnessed throughout the film.
Who was Kim Young-Tak?
Mo Se-beom (using the alias Kim Young-Tak) was a hardworking taxi driver who hustled day and night to save some money so that he could buy a “concrete” roof for his family. Um Tae-hwa’s Concrete Utopia often comments on the fact that a majority of middle-class families spend their entire lifetime saving up to purchase a matchbox flat in a metropolitan city, yet many of them fail to achieve their dreams. Se-beom loved his family too much. He wanted to give them a permanent house that they could call home, and perhaps it was when he heard about a realtor named Mun Seok-jo who was providing houses at a very cheap rate. Se-beom fell for the scam and took huge loans from the wrong people to purchase a house for his family, but soon tragedy struck. Seok-jo fled the country, and Se-beom had no means to get the money back, which was when he approached the person listed on the power of attorney, who was none other than Kim Young-Tak, a resident of Hwang Gung who lived in room 902 with his bedridden mother.
Moments before the apocalypse, Se-beom visited Young-Tak’s apartment to get back his money, but when the scammer refused to pay him back, Se-beom unleashed his inner demon upon him and killed the man in front of his ailing mother. Se-beom knew it was a mistake. He did it for his family and wanted to return to them so that he could bid them one last goodbye before getting arrested for his crimes, but the earthquake killed both his wife and daughter. It could be said that Se-beom might have finally gotten a house, but in the process, he lost his home. After the apocalypse, he started living at Young-Tak’s and took his identity so that he could stay in the only building that survived the catastrophe.
Why Did the Residents Throw Out the Outsiders?
The earthquake destroyed almost all the concrete buildings in the city, leaving most of the city’s population homeless. It was when the neighboring residents sought shelter at Hwang Gung Apartments, but some of the greedy and insecure owners didn’t want to share their space, food, and water with the outsiders, which was why they called for a society meeting to reach a solution.
Young-Tak (Mo Se-beom) had earlier shown much-needed courage and saved the building from catching fire, which made him a hero overnight. Hwang Gung residents believed in the man’s bravery and selflessness and therefore made him the leader of the community so that he could protect them from the wrath of the outsiders. As mentioned earlier, Se-beom was just a common taxi driver before all this, and the love and attention he received from Hwang Gung residents made him feel like an important person. His hunger for love and power grew over time, and therefore, he started to see himself as a messiah of the concrete utopia. It was evident from the very beginning that Se-beom wanted to please the lot and very well knew that the majority of the residents wanted to get rid of the outsides. After the voting, Se-beom supported the popular decision and did everything in his power to serve the majority, therefore throwing the non-residents out of the building with the utmost cruelty. He even created a new law that said no outsiders would be allowed in the building, but deep down, the man knew that he was an outsider too, living under a false identity and sleeping under a roof that was never his.
How Did Se-beom’s Real Identity Come to Light?
Se-beom always knew that he was living a false life, which made him extremely insecure throughout the film. However, his fears elevated when the real Kim Young-Tak’s neighbor, Moon Hye-won, a high school student who had left her father’s flat before the apocalypse, finally returned to Hwang Gung Apartments after facing a series of hardships in the outside world. Hye-won’s arrival threatened Se-beom’s position and power in the utopian society, which was why the man decided to intimidate the already traumatized girl so that she would keep her mouth shut. However, Hye-won finally revealed his secret to Myeong-hwa, the nicest resident in the entire building, who, after the revelation, inspected Young-Tak’s flat and found the original resident’s body stuffed in a washing machine. Myeong-hwa didn’t waste time informing other residents about Se-beom’s false identity, which was when the messiah finally showed his real face and threw Hye-won in a ditch, thereby proving that he was indeed a monster who lost his humanity a long time ago. Se-Beom had no empathy left in him. We could have forgiven Se-beom for killing Young-Tak, as the man had wronged him severely, but the way Se-beom treated the outsiders and made it his life’s mission to throw them out in the wilderness implied that he was slowly turning into a tyrant.
What Led to an Attack on Hwang Gung Apartments?
It is said that evil begets evil, and that was exactly what happened to the residents of Hwang Gung Apartments. As the film began, Myeong-hwa and her husband, Kim Min-sung, became a beacon of hope in the post-apocalyptic world through their selfless gestures. However, as soon as Se-beom became the interim leader of the pack, he not only kicked out the outsiders but also poisoned the minds of his fellow residents against them. It was Se-beom who was slowly turning Min-sung into a monster just like him and, therefore, persuaded the young man to use his army skills against the outsiders. Together, they created a resistance force that went into the wilderness to hunt for food and water, but there was no food left. Therefore, the men had to resort to violence and steal the food that didn’t belong to them in the first place, which finally led to a conflict between the two worlds. The outsiders, too, followed the violent practices and decided to attack the Hwang Gung Apartments so that they could steal their shelter and supplies and protect themselves from the harsh weather. None of it would have ever happened if the residents had shown some humanity and shared their spaces with the homeless. Perhaps it was a matter of perspective and short-sightedness. The likes of Se-beom perceived the outsiders as parasites, but they could have added numbers to their groups, which might have helped them to thrive longer and avoid any conflict. But alas, it was only the greed of a few that led to the deaths of many in the end.
Is Se-beom dead or alive?
Se-beom had always been lucky, to say the least. His truth came to light moments before the outsiders attacked the building, which bought him some time. He tried to defend the residents against the attackers, but there were too many of them, and most importantly, no one trusted Se-beom anymore. Whether the man was a monster or a tyrant, he tried to protect the residents till the very end and saved them from a handmade grenade that wounded him severely. As Se-beom gained consciousness, he went back to Young-Tak’s because the apartment was something he loved more dearly than his own life. However, a few moments after he stepped into the apartment, the outsiders barged in and stole everything inside it. Se-beom wanted to fight them, stop them, and protect the flat, but he had no life left in him. While the man didn’t die at the end of the film, it could be speculated that he would succumb to his injuries and some outsider would reside in the flat after his death.
What Happens to Myeong-hwa and Min-sung?
Through their many scavenging operations, Se-beom and Min-sung had become the faces of the brutal Hwang Gung forces, which was why the outsiders especially attacked these two people in the end. While Se-beom refused to leave the apartments, Min-sung and his wife, Myeong-hwa, managed to escape, but not without casualties. While trying to protect his wife from the outsiders, Min-sung was stabbed in the gut and lost a massive amount of blood. The couple, after a miraculous escape, ended up in a destroyed church to spend the night and protect themselves from the rain. However, the next day, Min-sung didn’t open his eyes. He died in his sleep. Min-sung was the only connection that Myeong-hwa had in this world, and the thread had broken forever. She was lost in a barren world, and even though some vagabonds found her and showed her a way to restart her life, it is most likely that Myeong-hwa won’t be able to fill the void in her life.
As the nomadic outsiders took Myeong-hwa to their humble abode, Myeong-hwa curiously asked them if she was allowed to live there with them. The concrete jungle of modern times has separated humans from humans by creating a wall between them. They live extremely close to each other and yet they are unaware of their neighbor’s existence. They never interact, never share, and never greet the faces that they see every day. But in the post-apocalyptic world, there is no concrete wall left to separate them. If they don’t share, they won’t survive, and that is what Myeong-hwa finally learned in the end. Even in the real world, there is still time left for humanity to bring down the concrete wall separating them before it is too late. Before a natural or a man-made disaster does it for them and forces them to live in rubble so that they can understand the lesson the hard way; out of all the people, Myeong-hwa was the only resident of Hwang Gung Apartment who deserved to live, which was why she was given a second chance.