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Griffith Maloney [Film Festival 07.15.12] Republic of Korea zombies apocalyptic scifi comedy



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Doomsday Book explore the inevitable end of the world caused by, depending on which film you like best, the voracious, slimy, living dead, a billiard shaped alien meteor or Buddhism. With brutal candor and bleak dark humor directors Kim Ji-woon and Yim Pil-sung illustrate the fears and fever dreams of a tumultuous film culture. The slightly uneven result is a fun genre-fest that puts some of the best aspects of Korean Cinema on display.


Doomsday Book is a product of one of the more unique film making environments in the world. In the late eighties two major things happened in the world of Korean cinema. Government censorship laws were eased and the South Korean government allowed foreign film companies to establish offices in Korea. These changes took talented new directors and dumped them in a cage match against the American blockbusters. This turmoil makes Korean film interesting but it also leads to painful production issues and a large number of failed projects. Doomsday Book ran into serious financial problems after Kim Ji-woon and Yim Pil-sung had shot their first segments and the project was put on hold for 5 years until the production company Timestory put up enough money to finish the film. Surprisingly this huge time gap doesn't really harm the film. The advantage of being a short film anthology is that as long as the films are thematically connected they can be forgiven their other inconsistencies.

The anthology's opener Brave New World is an amusing zombie apocalypse romp with some more serious moral overtones. A henpecked young man is excluded from his family's beachfront vacation and instead is put in charge of cleaning the families filthy apartment. He is the target and representation of all of the scorn of Korean society and his family's bitter neglect in both a material and spiritual sense is the cause behind this plague. Our milquetoast protagonist is of course our first zombie as his repressed rage and libido get the best of him. We get to see the complete collapse of society as zombies driven by their base instincts rage and fight and chew on people. There's a particularly great sequence as we follow the hero down a downtown alley and you're unable to differentiate the infected from the simply drunk or destitute.

The symbolism of Brave New World goes a little off the deep end and some of the biblical parallels are unnecessary but the idea of "reaping what you sow," which is the core of many zombie films, is done in a delightfully clever way. This film is by far the most beautiful and visually dynamic of the three pieces. Yim Pil-sung loads more menace into scenes from a korean BBQ restaurant then I ever imagined there could be. In fact so much of the shooting and editing of this piece is filled with the ominous styles of Korean horror movies that you feel almost as if our goofy main character has wandered onto the set of the wrong film. Even though it never goes full on bloodbath this first film is certainly the goriest of the whole production with some particularly gross, drooling zombie makeup in the final sequences.

My personal favorite and the most intellectual challenging is the middle section of the film, titled Heavenly Creature. A Buddhist parable dressed up in a thin sheen of sci-fi, Heavenly Creature follows a lowly robot technician, played by Kim Kang-woo, who is called out to a monastery to repair a malfunctioning robot. He is surprised to find that the monks have no interest in "fixing" this particular robot. They feel that the former guide robot is a Buddha and seek its wisdom on reaching nirvana themselves. For its part the robot, a beautifully minimal glossy white humanoid, behaves as if it posses free will and preaches on the nature of the void. After the computer brain of our Buddhist robot passes the diagnostics the monks reveal their real goal, they want the technician's opinion on whether or not the machine has reached enlightenment.

What follows is a struggle, both physically and mentally for the "life" of this supposedly transcendent piece of machinery. This is the section that will hold the most allure for the hard sci-fi fans. Most of the film is a dialogue heavy meditation on the role of complex tools and the threats that they pose to humanity. In an interesting twist on the "son surpassing the father" trope our characters are not afraid of the robots physical or mental superiority but rather their spiritual potential. Most of the film takes place in the Buddhist monastery but we do get glimpses of the technicians apartment, it is a sterile, glossy future, a glossy black and white contrast to the more natural colors of the monastery.

Heavenly Creature is deliberately vague about the state of the outside world but the glimpse portrayed here is tantalizing and the subtle quietness of the direction and acting is a perfect reflection of the spiritual issues that the piece discusses. Of these three movies Heavenly Creature has the most potential to stand as a full length film. What's perhaps most striking is that it posits a philosophical apocalypse rather then a physical one. The head of the robotics company goes on about cleansing the robot, lest they all rise up and slit the throats of their human masters. All that bluster hides what he's really afraid of, a spiritually stunted fate for mankind. What's really scary about this future isn't the threat of physical violence but rather the worry that the tools we've created might surpass and we'll be left without anyone to guide us, not even out guide robots.

The final short film is Happy Birthday and its ends the film on a funny and slightly more optimistic note. A young girl, Jin Ji-hee, accidentally orders a replacement 8-Ball from an alien website only to have it arrive two years later as a huge earth crushing meteor. As her family crouches in a fallout shelter she and her roboticist uncle try desperately to find a "return package" option. If that premise sounds a little goofy to you that's because it is. Happy Birthday is by far the silliest of these three films but luckily, it's also the funniest. It's goofiness reminded me of another Korean alien movie, Save The Green Planet, although Yim Pil-sung's short is no where near as dark. As with Brave New World there are a number of rather clever political jokes in this piece and some of the sillier stuff left me with a huge grin on my face.

So how do they hold up together? Surprisingly well actually. The production value of these pictures is relatively high and the variety of topic makes them quite enjoyable for the viewer. The first and last film are amusing enough to be enjoyed by any sci-fi lover, they're fun, rollicking genre movies at their best. The middle section is a bit of a different beast and I fully expect most viewers to be relatively bored with the Buddhist philosophizing. I for one found it fascinating and the topics that were raised in Heavenly Creature stayed with me for much longer then the the jokes from either of the other films.

If I had to guess I'd say that the arrangement of the three films serves to amplify the message of Kim Ji-woon's film. The comedy-serious-comedy sandwich is a classic delivery system from time immemorial. You could probably watch all three of these alone and still enjoy them but there is an added bonus of seeing all of these together and that's a window into the directors thematic goals and wishes. There is a downside however in the tonal disconnect of the three films. They're similar enough in look and time-frame that the audience can't help but feel they're connected and yet they're performed and directed so differently that it’s jarring. People as they are portrayed in Heavenly Creature would be at a loss when confronted with the goofballs of Happy Birthday. That said I don't feel it's as bad as the NYAFF staff apparently do, as they have an announcer explaining that the three different films have radically different atmospheres before each screening.

There is a subtle thread of humanity that ties them all together though. An important theme that's arguably more important than the persistent fear of apocalypse. The capacity for human empathy is highlighted in all three of these short pieces, as if they were an illustration of the two film-makers hopes. Kim Ji-woon and Yim Pil-sung believe in the importance of kindness and humanity in the face of disaster or at least they want you to realize how valuable it is to love others. As each film addresses the importance of love and trust from a different angle. This may seem like a weird theme for three apocalyptic short films but its actually a pretty strong narrative thread, certainly better then just setting all your stories in the same city. In fact the message is so subtly and humorously delivered that I'd say it slips under the radar for most of the movie. For that reason alone its worth watching Doomsday Book as it was intended, as one terrifying rush of future predictions, future dooms and future hopes.

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