[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Before the screening of Doomsday Book I attended, one of the NYAFF festival programmers came out to give some history about the production. Rather than a single narrative, the film is an anthology of three doomsday-ish scenarios, and it went through quite a bit of production trouble before finally being completed. More importantly, he pointed out the dramatic tonal shift which would be taking place between sections. The first and third, directed by Yim Pil-Sung, were going to be comedic. The second, directed by Kim Ji-Woon, would not be.
So I was able to brace myself when one story ended and the next began, and just as he said, things changed immediately. I'm really, really glad I got that warning.
Doomsday Book (Inlyumyeolmangbogoseo | 인류멸망보고서)
There is no "book" in Doomsday Book. In fact, none of the three shorts in the anthology have the faintest thing to do with literature of any kind. Perhaps the title is a reference to the film's status as an anthology? But then why not just call it Doomsday Anthology? Or A Series of Shorts About Doomsday Done by Famous Korean Directors? Both of them would be more appropriate titles, and neither of them would seem so out of place given the films themselves.
First, there's Brave New World, Yim Pil-Sung's take on the zombie genre. Then there's Heavenly Creature, directed by Kim Ji-Woon, which looks at a world where robots are Buddhas. Then Yim Pil-Sung returns (with Kim Ji-Woon as guest director) for Happy Birthday, which serves as a warning against purchasing things from strange websites. They are all entirely self-contained stories, and none of them are really anything like the others. As three separate stories they would be just as effective as they are in a collection. That does not, however, mean that they are bad as a collection, because they absolutely aren't.
A quick look at Wikipedia's list of zombie movies shows that the last two years have seen a dramatic decrease in production. But even if Brave New World had come out during some of the more zombie-heavy years, it would still stand out. Unlike most zombie films, Brave New World is about Patient Zero, played by Ryu Seung-Beom. Although it's never explained how exactly the virus comes to exist, it's very interesting to see how the disease comes to infect large portions of the population. Even though there is a Patient Zero, Patients 1-30 become infected at essentially the same time he does, though not in the way you would think.
Happy Birthday is about a family preparing for the apocalypse. A giant meteor/thing is hurtling towards them (note: the meteor in the trailer is actually different from the meteor in the film), and they have to figure out how to survive. Fortunately, they have a doomsday bunker complete with TV, computer, internet, and bikes that can generate some electricity. Three of those things would obviously be useless following the collision, but they are important in the context of the plot, so it's good they have them.
Both of Yim Pil-Sung's segments spend a lot of time with TV news. Using the news as a narrative device is an interesting one. It's a very easy way to set the mood or explain events without giving characters overly expository dialogue. Usually you see it used in more political films, but these shorts use it to give updates on the crises at hand. These updates also offer some of the best moments in the whole of Doomsday Book. As I mentioned in the beginning, both of those sections are funny, and a lot of that comes from these newscasts. Watching as the people onscreen devolve while the world goes to hell is as funny as it is poignant.
Unfortunately, I was very disappointed with the middle segment, Heavenly Creature. Kim Ji-Woon, who directed both I Saw the Devil and The Good, the Bad, the Weird, is one of my favorite Korean directors, so I had high expectations. They were not met. But I think that even if I had gone in with no expectations I would have been disappointed by the segment. The problem is simple: too much talking. In a near-future world that seems to be like a Korean version of I, Robot, the film focuses on a Buddhist monastery. The moments in the outside world are tantalizing and fascinating, but they are too few and far in between. Instead, we're stuck with characters philosophizing about the role of robots, their capabilities, and what it means to be Buddha.
This could be interesting, but it's not. It's a static location with static characters. Some of these characters are defending the robots, some of them are attacking the robots, but even though a robot is really the central character, the robots are peripheral. They are simply there as a way to justify long speeches about the role of technology in modern society. Rather than showing the audience how detrimental they are, the film seems content with telling us. If this were a book, pages of monologue would be fine, if a bit boring to read. In a movie, though, it's almost insulting.
That being said, I still liked Heavenly Creature. It could (and should) have been much more than it was, but it was nonetheless very well done. The moments in the world outside were especially cool, and I would be okay with a future that looked like that. It's also intensely dramatic, jarringly so, given the comedic nature of the shorts around it. That is neither a good nor a bad thing, though, simply something to be aware of.
As a whole, I really enjoyed Doomsday Book. Despite a disappointing second segment, it had some really amazing moments. Happy Birthday is excellent, Brave New World is great, and Heavenly Creature is good. There is no greater meaning that comes from them being together, but there really doesn't need to be. Originally, the anthology was set to feature a third short (in place of Happy Birthday) directed by Han Jae-Rim, but budgetary concerns made that impossible.
I'm curious what that would have been like. Perhaps there would have been a clearer progression from one film to the next. Maybe it would have had something to do with a book. It's an interesting thing to think about, but it doesn't really do any good, especially since it would have replaced Happy Birthday, and that would have been a shame.
Hubert Vigilla: Anthology films can be an odd duck since you're thinking about the parts of the whole and how they function together. It's rare that any of them cohere as well as a mix tape. In Doomsday Book, each of the three films deals with a version of the end of the world: a zombie apocalypse, the end of human spiritual supremacy, and (essentially) an asteroid strike. The Yim Pil-Sung bookends to Doomsday Book are much wackier, more inventive, and more dynamic than the Kim Ji-Woon center, which is more meditative and philosophical, though it's also on the talky side. It gets by on its fascinating conceit -- what if a robot thought it was the Buddha -- and its remarkable sense of design. There's a feature-length film in that could be extrapolated from the middle section, or at the very least a good novella. But even then, nothing feels like filler in Doomsday Book, and each of the films stands solidly on their own. 77 - Good
[Doomsday Book will be screening at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater Wednesday, July 11th at 8:15 PM and Thursday, July 12th at 1:00 PM]