Well Go USA // 2012 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // December 28th, 2012
Two directors. Three visions of the future. One mindblowing story.
I love anthology movies. The idea of a single movie containing short pieces from a number of different filmmakers, and the ways that those different and often disparate voices bounce off one another inside of the same movie, is, on paper, such a neat prospect. It's frustrating to me, then, that there are so few good anthology movies. The new Korean anthology film Doomsday Book, which presents three different stories from two of Korea's most talented contemporary filmmakers, imagines the End of Days by three different means. In the first story, it's genetic experimentation and the food supply that will bring about society's end; in the second, it's technology and artificial intelligence. The final story has the world ending by a kind of fluke -- a miscommunication with an outside life form. Though they deal with the same endgame, all three stories are different enough to avoid overlap. All three also have some pretty big problems, even if those problems are very different.
Kicking the movie off is "Brave New World," written and directed by Yim Pil-sung (Hansel & Gretel), which reimagines the zombie movie as an outbreak of disease brought on by tainted food. While the segment is totally watchable and Pil-sung does a good job of steadily building dread and maintaining a darkly comic tone throughout, it feels very much like a first act; without two more acts to follow, it adds up to very little. Zombie movies are traditionally about what happens after a zombie outbreak -- how the survivors deal with an undead apocalypse. "Brave New World" spends to much time playing out the "how" and no time on the "what next," so the segment feels like a setup for a movie that we never get to see. Pil-sung attempts to layer in some subtext in which new lovers played by Ryu Seung-beom and Go Joon-hee are positioned as the Adam and Eve of the New World Order, but to what end? Simply including religious overtones doesn't give the story more weight if they're not in the service of something that can support them. It's to Pil-sung's credit that I would be willing to watch more of the movie that "Brave New World" seems to kick off, but in an anthology the segments have to work on their own. They can't be just a third of a story -- they need to be short stories in and of themselves.
What primarily drew me to Doomsday Book was the participation of Kim Jee-woon, one of my favorite directors currently working and a guy who has yet to make a movie that isn't totally great (though, to be fair, I still have not seen A Bittersweet Life, as it hasn't been made available in the U.S. and I refuse to watch it through less-than-legal channels). He directed only the second segment, "Heavenly Creature," so maybe it's not a surprise that it's easily the best of the three segments. Having said that, it's not without its share of problems. The ideas that it introduces about sentient technology and where we are willing to turn for spiritual leadership (it imagines a future in which Buddha has been reincarnated inside of an artificial intelligence) are all interesting, and I could see "Heavenly Creature" working beautifully as a short story in literary form. As a movie though, it comes up a little short, because Kim Jee-woon never quite figures out how to present the ideas visually -- it amounts to a bunch of characters standing around explaining things in long stretches of dialogue. It's a problem I've identified in a handful of movies, from Kevin Smith's Dogma to John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, in which the filmmakers have some novel concepts they want to explore but haven't figured out the most cinematic way of doing so. On the page, it can be great. Movies are more than just a spoken medium, though, and "Heavenly Creature" can't quite transcend the limitations of its intelligent but overly-talky script. It's also a little jarring to see just how much of the robot design appears to have been lifted from Alex Proyas's I, Robot, but maybe that's just me.
The final story, "Happy Birthday," finds Yim Pil-sung once again behind the camera for the weakest of the three stories. That's a problem considering it's the one that closes out the whole movie; the three stories should gradually build to a crescendo, but instead they peter out with a limp, ineffective climax. "Happy Birthday" is the most overtly comedic of the three pieces and probably would have been better suited going second (I guess the filmmakers didn't want Pil-sung having two in a row). Like pretty much everything in Doomsday Book, it's a mishmash of ideas combining alien invaders with our reliance on media, suggesting that our digital lives and the lack of participation in our own fates -- we're too content to be observers instead of taking charge. Very little of that comes together, though, and the pieces that do work are just too silly to have much impact. The change in tones may be a welcome one -- it helps break up any potential sameness, which could be a problem in an anthology like this -- but a different tone is pretty much all "Happy Birthday" has to offer.
Doomsday Book looks great on Blu-ray, with a 1080p transfer that brings out all of the detail and subtlety (when appropriate) of the movie's photography. Both Pil-sung and Jee-woon are exceptional visual stylists, meaning the movie always looks great even when its narrative feels slightly undercooked, and Well Go USA's HD presentation of the film does right by their meticulous visuals. The lossless 5.1 audio track presents the movie in its original Korean with English subtitles (there is no option for an English dub, which is a good thing) and handles the dialogue and effects very well. The disc is very technically sound, thought that's somewhat undermined by the inclusion of only a trailer (that runs less than a minute!) in the bonus features department.
Doomsday Book is a movie of good intentions with a lot of interesting ideas, and make work as a passing curiosity to fans of the two filmmakers or of the new Korean cinema. It's a movie with a lot going for it, even if it doesn't quite add up -- the kind that's just good enough so as to be frustrating that it's not better.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Korean)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Korean)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R