Fantasia 2012: ‘Doomsday Book’ does not fully come together
Directed by Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-sung
Written by Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-sung
South Korea, 2012
How often do anthology films fully come together, with each part perfectly complimenting one another? The answer, despite however many times filmmakers attempt to construct them, is rarely. In fairness, the degree of difficult involved is high, with the creative teams having to come up with not one but multiple storylines, the themes and plot of which, as a requirement, must come together to form a whole, single cohesive project. Directors and screenwriters Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-sung make their challenge even taller by adopting as the overarching theme of their collaboration, Doomsday Book, the end of the world. Admirable as the challenge may be, it is the results which matter most. So how did they fair?
Doomsday Book is sliced into three separate chapters, the first and third directed by Yim Pil-sung (who was kind enough to make the trip to the festival for the screening), with his compatriot Kim taking charge of the middle story. It opens with A Brave New World in which a young hopeful scientist (Ryu Seung-beom) house sits while his family is away. Little does he realize while taking out the garbage that the apple he tosses into the bag with all the other waste is startlingly unhealthy looking. The apple travels to the waste disposal plant, is tossed around here and there, and before anyone knows it, an infection begins to spread, turning people into flesh eating zombies, including the protagonist and the cute girl he takes on a date (Go Joon-hee).
The first thing one notices when watching A Brave New World is that director Yim Pil-sung has a great eye for visually appealing scenes. There is something very assured about his direction, from the camera angles, to the colour scheme, which is very natural in the early going before slowly, unmistakably venturing into a more offbeat tapestry once the mysterious virus begins to morph ordinary citizens into overpowering, flesh-thirsty freaks. Where New World succeeds most of all (and, as shall be discussed later on, where his second short film fails) is in the balancing of multiple tones. The story may explore what happens in South Korea when the zombie apocalypse breaks out, the film operates in some ways as a variant of Edgar Wright’s contemporary classic, Shaun of the Dead. Even though audiences are witnessing the transformation of kind, likeable characters played by two talented performers from humans to beasts, which itself is sad and disgusting, Yim Pil-sung is adept at tugging the audiences emotions just enough to have us still care about what is transpiring once they two lovers go foul, with one of the tools being the continuation of the romantic comedy set up prior to the outbreak. It adds a level of pathos to the story, one that would otherwise had been lost in the relishing of all the destruction and decay. It is a sad tale, a horrific tale, but one audience can relate to. A solid, if not a great story.
The second episode, Heavenly Creatures, takes viewers some distance into the future, a time when robots, much as was written by the legendary author of science-fiction Isaac Asimov, sophisticated robots are all around humans with the purpose of serving and helping them. UR is the principle manufacturer of such mechanical helpers, but when word reaches them that a special unit programmed to give visitors of a nearby Buddist temple a tour guide has somehow, someway, achieved enlightenment, heads are scratched. The company dispatches a technician, Park Do-won (Kim Kang-woo) to the temple in order to unravel the mystery. Once there, his beliefs are given a good shake by the RU-4 unit, a peaceful machine who does indeed seem to own some sort of ‘higher knowledge’ of the Buddhist principles. Have the machines begun to evolve beyond what humans ever intended?
Kim Jee-woon takes an entirely different approach to his interpretation of the end of the world. In fact, Heavenly Creatures never truly embraces any doomsday depiction, preferring instead to offer philosophical and intellectual debates of what might be the cause of the end of days for mankind, in this case the unforeseen uber-sophistication of the mechanical beings created by mankind as slaves. The director retreats from the sort of flamboyancy with which he has made a name for himself (The Good, the Bad and the Weird, I Saw the Devil). This short is far, far calmer and serene than, first, anything he has done in the past and, second, either of the two other shorts which sandwich it. The only ‘action’ are shouting matches between UR representatives and the Buddhists who have been convinced that this odd robotic organism is a reincarnation of Buddha himself (the film itself cleverly never has the robot announce itself as the next Buddha, hence preserving an aura of mystery). At its heart, Kim’s film is pure, hard core science fiction. Space opera thrills are left to watch on the sideline as numerous powerful discussions occur as to what to do with the robot, its nature, and what its existence might entail provided that somehow it has in fact achieved enlightenment. The episode demands a degree of patience from the audience, but anyone willing to let the story flow will come away with quite a bit to talk about. The world building is equally impressive, with the production design shining through in some subtle yet discernibly futuristic designs, right down to the robot under scrutiny, which has shades of the famous Metropolis machine. Heavenly Creatures is majestic.
Finally, Happy Birthday follows the story of Park Min-seo (Jin Ji-hee), a young school girl who orders a new 8 ball for her father online. Flash forward a few years later and it is revealed that a meteor is heading straight for Earth (South Korea, to be more precise). Or is it a meteor? As the object of doom falls closer and closer, telescopes and satellites pick up on the fact that it is a gigantic 8 ball. Park Min-seo, realizing the shocking truth behind her actions from the past, tries to explain the situation to her parents and uncle. As the world anticipates its demise, the protagonist and her family try to concoct a way so as to cancel the delivery before it ever reaches their planet.
As previously stated, Yim Pil-sung returns to direct this third and finally story of Doomsday Book and, unfortunately in the spirit of so many anthology movies, it breaks the streak of solid films. Rather, it does not merely break the streak, it pulverizes it. This last entry is so over the top that it makes the first episode, the one about the zombie apocalypse, feel like an art house film lovers dream. Happy Birthday plays virtually everything for laughs, employing the most outrageous type of comedy at that. This hurts the film even more so when it stands next to the director’s other film in the project. Where Brave New World managed to at least balance the tones, accepting that the events were horrific while never losing sight of the touching character development and, yes, the comedy, nothing in Happy Birthday is taken seriously at all. It is even more frustrating when considering that, if one imagines such jokes transplanted into another film that had nothing to do with the end of the world, they might have been funny. The performances are over the top, the actors behave like cartoons and many of the jokes come straight of the left field with little contextualization. What is the deal with the giant 8 ball? Why must that be the device of our planet’s destruction? Who knows. Maybe that in of itself and the ridicule of it all is supposed to satisfy the viewer. This is without question the odd film out in the trilogy.
It is tempting to imagine what Doomsday Book might have been like if a different director had chosen to conclude the trilogy. There just seems to be a painful irony to the fact that the worst of the bunch is the second film from the fellow who made the first one, which itself is not even t the same level of the middle one, the latter courtesy of South Korean superstar director Kim Jee-woon. As result, Doomsday Book falls very much in line with many other anthology pictures: it seemed like a good idea but does not fully come to together. Unfortunately, this is not one of those cases for which consistency is to be applauded.
– Edgar Chaput