Doomsday Book: Film Review

Triple shot of apocalyptic weirdness from South Korea.

Korean sci-fi and horror directors offer alternative speculations on the end of the world.

A trio of loosely linked excursions into the Twilight Zone, via South Korea, this award-winning anthology of future-shock shorts offers three distinct variations on an apocalyptic theme. Overall production values are glossy and slick, with no obvious traces of the funding problems which plunged the half-finished project into limbo for three years back in 2007. Currently showing in the “cult” sidebar of the London Film Festival, Doomsday Book is uneven in both tone and quality, but has a readymade audience among aficionados of Asian horror and sci-fi. Modest big-screen interest in specialist markets outside Korea seems likely.

Director Yim Pil-Sung bookends the film with two darkly comic riffs on familiar pulpy Armageddon themes: the zombie takeover and the catastrophic meteor collision. In Brave New World, a geeky young man (Ryoo Seung-bum) eats a rotten apple that leads to toxic biological sludge from his family apartment leaking into the food chain, soon transforming the entire population into flesh-chomping, slime-drooling, undead monsters. In the surreal closing chapter Happy Birthday, a young girl (Jin Ji-hee) places an order via a mysterious website which results, 10 years later, in a planet-sized billiard ball hurtling through space to devastate Earth.

Both of Yim’s contributions deliver maximum brash humor and satirical comment, with plenty of broad sideswipes at Korean television and politics. As such, they are likely to leave non-native viewers slightly befuddled, particularly the jarring switches of tone between comedy and horror, cartoonish farce and strained Biblical allegory. Both chapters have their goofy appeal, but neither musters much of a dramatic final twist, while the comic tastes of other cultures inevitably lose something in translation.

Fortunately, the centerpiece of the triptych is a far superior animal. Set in some heavily automated near-future society, Kim Jung-hwa’s chilly philosophical parable Heavenly Creature examines the dilemma of a corporate technician called into a Buddhist monastery to terminate a robot servant who appears to have attained a higher spiritual consciousness. With its melancholy face and hypnotically weary voice, the man-machine in question is given to Zen-like commands like “fill your mind with nothingness”. Its body, all clinical white plastic and gleaming steel armatures, is a lovely piece of Apple-style design reminiscent of director Chris Cunningham’s striking android Bjork in the Icelandic singer’s All Is Full of Love video.

Culminating in a long debate about the Frankenstein-style perils of machines with souls, Kim’s serene meditation on the spiritual cost of technological progress inevitably contains echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. It is the slowest and most talk-heavy of the film’s three segments, with the most tenuous link to conventional notions of doomsday. But it is also the most haunting chapter, and the only one with sufficient style and substance to merit expansion into a full feature.

Venue: London Film Festival
Production company: Zio Entertainment
Producer: Kim Jung-hwa

Brave New World
Cast: Ryoo Seung-bum, Koh Joon-hee
Director: Yim Pil-sung
Writer: Screenplay, Yim Pil-sung, Lee Hwan-hui
Cinematography: Cho Sang-yun
Editor: Im Sun-kyoung

Heavenly Creature
Cast: Kim Kang-woo, Kim Gyu-ri, Park Hae-il
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Writer: Kim Ji-woon, from a story by Park Sung-hwan
Cinematography: Kim Ji-yong
Editor: Moon Se-kyung

Happy Birthday
Cast: Song Sae-byoek, Jin Ji-hee, Bae Doo-na
Directors: Yim Pil-sung
Writers: Yim Pil-sung, Yang Jong-q, from a story by Park Soo-min
Cinematography: Ha Sung-min
Editor: Nam Na-young

Sales agent: M-Line
115 minutes