Greetings again from the darkness. Dropping ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances is sure to generate some interesting cinematic results, and that’s what writer-director Tae-Hwa Eom and co-writer Lee Shin-ji do in South Korea’s official submission to this year’s Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. The film opens with a devastatingly powerful earthquake in 2020 Seoul.
When the dust settles, the Hwang Gung Apartment building is still standing. This is in stark contrast to the surrounding rubble as far as the eye can see. The city lies in ruins, at least in this section of the heart of town. Initially things go as you’d hope with neighbors helping neighbors and families re-grouping and embracing. However, with temperatures dropping and other shelter impossible to find, the residents of the Hwang Gung Apartments become concerned about the influx of ‘outsiders’. As everyone becomes anxious about resources and supplies, the building residents begin to organize, and have soon voted to evict the outsiders, while naming one man, Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun) as the Delegate (leader) of their cause. This, after he is seen courageously sacrificing his own safety to put out a fire in an apartment.
The initial neighborly courtesies transition to self-preservation and protection of family. Much of the story focuses on one young couple, Min-sung (Park Seo-jun) and his wife, altruistic nurse Myung-hwa (Park Bo-young), who shows concern about human nature exposing the dark side for many of the fellow tenants. The apocalyptic or dystopian environment brings out the worst of many who seem unwilling to consider the proverbial ‘shoe on the other foot’. The residents organize into factions: anti-crime, rations, medical, maintenance, and waste management. The organization provides not just a way to occupy minds and keep residents alive, but also an ‘us against them’ mentality.
When Hye-won (Park Ji-hu), a Hwang Gung resident who was not there when the quake hit, makes her way back home, the tone shifts and the organization is exposed. She brings information about the Delegate, implying that he may not be the hero they presume him to be. This segment brings some flashbacks to just before the quake hit, allowing context that helps us understand more. Her arrival makes the third act even more emotional and frantic.
The politics of South Korea living spaces is touched upon in the opening, but director Eom is much more focused on exploring human nature … those ordinary folks in an extraordinary situation. Desperation leads to irrational thought and survival mode overrides all logic. Normal people become more militant, more unforgiving, and less charitable. What the apartment residents did not consider is that those “outsiders” (or “roaches”, as they are called) become even more desperate and their aggressiveness is certain to rise along with their will to survive.
Those living in South Korea will surely have an appreciation for the political aspects of the film, and everyone will recognize the warning signs of human nature when things go sideways – as they seem to quite frequently these days. Whether it’s political commentary or a precautionary tale, filmmaker Eom makes the points effectively.
Opening in NYC and LA on December 8, 2023 and nationwide on December 15, 2023