‘Doomsday Book’ Movie Review – a highly ambitious sci-fi anthology

Doomsday Book

Written and directed by Jee-woon Kim and Pil-Sung Yim

South Korea, 2012

H.G. Wells, a godfather of modern apocalyptic literature, once said that, “all this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings who are not latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins shall stand upon this earth as one stands upon a foot-stool and shall laugh and reach their hands amidst the stars”.

Decades later and continents away, Jee-woon Kim and Pil-Sung Yim’s Doomsday Book, an anthology of apocalyptic possibilities, channels the ethos of Wells’ work in a distinctly Korean endeavour. Broken into three disparate parts, the film is at times silly and farcical, and at others profound and insightful.

The film kicks off with a segment called A Brave New World, as in the Aldous Huxley novel of the same name. In it, we are introduced to Suk-woo (Seung-beom Ryu), a mousy military scientist charged with taking care of the family home when everyone else is on vacation. As a part of his duties, he throws out the considerable amount of rubbish built up around the house, including a rotten apple with foreboding implications; as we later find out, it’s genetically abnormal, causing a chain reaction that later infects livestock. While on a blind date with the gorgeous and ever-archiving Kim Yoo-min (Jun-hee Ko), Suk-woo unknowingly eats beef from that infected livestock, and after two separate and wholly different forms of saliva transference, unleashes a zombie epidemic unto the country.  

Like the Huxley novel, A Brave New World harbours a critical sentiment towards the role of technology in the modern world (i.e. genetically modified food, which leads to overconsumption). Moreover, it also has broader political gripes, such as government excess and partisan ideologues, and the pandemonium and social anxiety in this chapter can be seen as a reflection of the deep-seated angst that South Korean society has towards its Northern counterparts (an idea it slightly hints to). Wrapped in an offbeat style and injected with equally offbeat characters, A Brave New World is sometimes lighter and more whimsical than its setting demands, but is entertaining nevertheless.

Heavenly Creature, the second chapter, is by far the most intriguing. Set in the future, where animatronic robots are the norm, a repairman named Park Do-won (Kang-woo Kim) is commissioned by a Buddhist monastery to assess a particular RU-4 unit. Since the robot is able to achieve advanced levels of enlightenment, the monks figure that there must be a technical glitch, but when Park can’t find any, perceptions on the matter range from confusion to anger. When the manufacturers catch wind of this, they deem the robot a danger to humanity and aim to destroy it, but after an internal crisis of morality, Park, along with a monk named Hye-joo (Kim Gyu-ri), try to stop them.

A seismic departure from the last chapter, Heavenly Creature is a somber, philosophical meditation on the nature of being human, technological determinism, and artificial cognition and intelligence; like a masterful blend of Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?/ Blade Runner) and Isaac Asimov (I, Robot). Thought provoking, contemplative, and emotionally stirring, even beyond its last scene, Heavenly Creature is the zenith of Doomsday Book.

The tertiary chapter, Happy Birthday, follows the story of a young girl named Park Min-seo (Ji-hee Jin). After breaking the 8-ball of her billiards-obsessed father (Lee Seung-jun), she orders a replacement from a spurious website, which, two years later, manifests in a giant cue-ball-shaped meteor careening towards earth. With collision imminent, Min-seo and her family, which includes her mother (Yoon Se-ah) and her science-savvy uncle (Song Sae-Byok), are forced to take refuge in an underground bunker.

In Happy Birthday, the social commentary about technology and media is conspicuously on show (think God Bless America). Returning to the same tenor as A Brave New World, this chapter is a lot more far-fetched and farcical, but, consequently, a lot more humorous. The main characters are more defined and interesting than in any other chapter, the side characters especially (i.e. the news anchors), adding a distinctly human element to the storytelling, as opposed to the previous segments that featured zombie and robot protagonists.   

In all, Doomsday Book is a highly ambitious sci-fi anthology, whose qualities come from its parts as opposed to its whole. Each individual chapter is laced with ideas and insight on humanity in our technologically infused world, and each, taken alone, has its own merits. As a whole, it’s tonally uneven, ranging from silly (A Brave New World) to serious (Heavenly Creature) and back to silly (Happy Birthday), with the didactic intentions of each serving as the only connective thread. However, as a compendium of science fiction stories about the fall of humankind, Doomsday Book is ultimately an anthology that Wells would probably approve of.

– Justin Li 

The 7th annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival runs from October 18-26. For a complete schedule and ticket information, please visit the offical website.

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