Planning Magazine

‘Concrete Utopia’ Shows How to Heal Cracks in the Social Fabric

After an earthquake levels most of their city, tenants self-govern for survival in this South Korean disaster flick.

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In "Concrete Utopia," the fate of Seoul apartment dwellers rests on their ability to build consensus — a vital skill in planning. Photo courtesy of 815 Pictures.

Ever since the days of Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, and City on Fire, Hollywood has made an art of chaos, terrifying audiences with a special form of horror: the disaster movie.

It's a clever formula — while serial killers, vampires, and even great white sharks may be scary at the individual level, they pale when compared to widespread catastrophes. A flood, wildfire, volcanic eruption, earthquake, or giant Kaiju monster can suddenly remake the entire physical landscape, removing everything we thought was solid ground. These catastrophes often lead to a complete breakdown of urban infrastructure and the rule of law, revealing the fragility of our cities, governments, economies, and social systems. Remove the thin veil of "civilization" and life as we know it quickly devolves into a dystopian state of social panic and existential freefall. In the latest entry into the genre, a nascent tenant government soon learns the hard way what many planners already know: policies are easier to adopt than to enforce, and the devil is often in the details.

Over the years the disaster category has grown to include an ever-expanding arsenal of impending dooms, from lab-born pandemics and zombie plagues to a giant asteroid suddenly speeding toward Earth. As production costs have come down thanks to CGI effects and digital cameras, and as audiences have broadened their palates, viewers can now enjoy lower-budget, indie, or foreign disaster films. In particular, films from South Korean filmmakers have attracted attention over the past decade, with Bong Joon-ho's The Host and Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan using disasters to highlight the social and economic tensions of Korean society.

The focus is not surprising: the effects of uneven growth, uncertain futures, and unequal opportunity are common themes in today's Korean films and Um Tae-hwa's Concrete Utopia is no exception, zooming in on residents of a single housing complex as they navigate a natural disaster that exposes just how deep these societal fractures are. Following an earthquake so large it destroys nearly every structure in Seoul, the story focuses on the Hwang Gung Apartments, a solitary structure that has miraculously survived and stands surrounded by fields of rubble and destruction. The residents quickly organize, working collectively to gather food, restore water and power, and literally fight fires as the ongoing effects of the disaster disrupt every aspect of urban living. They establish their own internal government — with an elected "Resident Delegate" — and proceed to institute policies for collective survival through the cold winter, holding so many tenants' meetings and planning sessions that Planning readers might believe they were watching a documentary on community facilitation (all we need are a few visioning sessions).


Even trickier, the film also poses a moral quandary. In times of scarcity, many people look to save themselves first, but there are neighbors just outside the Hwang Gung gates also struggling to survive. Further, while collective action, consensus building, and communal organization may sound good, in practice they may rely on coercion (or worse) to deal with differences of opinion and dissent, especially in times of stress or national crisis. Through the debates and actions of the residents toward each other and those outside dying to get in, the film presents problems of exclusion, hoarding, authoritarianism, and social control — with parallels to migration, divisive politics, class warfare, and exclusionary housing policies.

Concrete Utopia is a thrilling ride with real personal drama and deep insights into both human nature and the communities we build, all presented in a visually stunning and surprisingly fun package. Bonus: it has one of the most uplifting endings of any disaster film ever made, through a stroke of filmmaking genius that will literally change the way you look at the world.

The film is available on viki Rokuten ($5.99).

If you liked Concrete Utopia, you may also enjoy...



High-Rise (2015)

Adapted from a J. G. Ballard novel and directed by Ben Wheatley (A Field in England, In the Earth, Meg 2: The Trench), this film takes weird to absurd new heights. The entire film takes place in a single, 40-story apartment tower, which seems to be slowly deteriorating — physically, socially, morally — as the story unfolds over a series of months. As we watch the social order descend into anarchy, murder, mayhem, sewage backups, and worse, we are forced to confront the barbarism which lies just below the surface of polite society.

High-Rise is available on Netflix and Hulu (with subscription); Tubi, Pluto TV, Sling TV, The Roku Channel, Fandango at Home and PLEX (free).


Elysium (2013)

South African director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene with 2009's District 9, a biting social commentary on racism, segregation, and Apartheid policies that is loosely veiled in the skin of an alien-invasion movie. For Elysium, starring Matt Damon, he revisited many of these same concerns (but with a bigger budget) to create a future world sharply divided by money and class. On a poisoned, dying Earth, billions of people struggle in abject poverty to meet even their daily needs, with starvation and violent death more common than fresh air or clean water; high above, on the orbital Elysium station, the rich live in a technological paradise. But one social justice warrior with a grudge and nothing to lose (as well as a kick-ass suit of battle armor) intends to change all that.

Elysium is available on Amazon Prime and Google Play ($3.59); YouTube, and Apple TV ($3.99); and the Roku Channel (free).


The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)

The great Harry Belafonte plays Ralph Burton, a coal miner who emerges from a collapsed tunnel only to discover that the entire population has been wiped out by a radioactive cloud. Making his way to New York City in search of other survivors, he meets Sarah Crandall, who also has survived. Together, they begin to rebuild their own idyllic postapocalyptic society. But, while problems like transportation, running water, telephones, and electric power may be easy to solve, the deeper evils of racism and social division prove more intractable. A great sci-fi film, it provides a window into the political and societal issues of the early civil rights era.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil is available on Amazon Prime ($3.79); Hulu and Sling TV (premium subscription); Fandango, YouTube, Apple TV, and Google Play ($3.99).

Ezra Haber Glenn, AICP, is Planning's regular film reviewer. He teaches at MIT's Department of Urban Studies & Planning and writes about cities and film. Follow him at