The first thing any review of an anthology film usually mentions is that the format, by its very nature, invariably leads to a mixed bag when it comes to quality.
Doomsday Book, a new anthology film from South Korea, is a mixed bag… but thankfully the quality only ranges from good to fantastic. Directors Pil-sung Yim (Hansel & Gretel) and Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil) combined forces to deliver an oddball look at mankind’s demise.
Some say the world will end with zombies, and others say with an asteroid. This three part film offers up both options and tosses in a third less literal end that serves as more of an awakening. All three segments have observations to share on humanity, and while the book-ending parts do so with blackly comic heart the middle story is a ruminative commentary on what it means to be a human with designs on the spiritual.
Yim’s “A Brave New World” opens the film with the tale of a geeky government scientist abandoned by his family while they go on vacation. They leave him with a list of chores which he slowly works his way through, but by the time he gets to the one about cleaning out the pot on the stove something has begun growing inside of it. He tosses out the foul contents and thinks nothing more about it… until it leads to a zombie apocalypse.
The segment is played for mostly comedic effect, but while the laughs hit home the story’s attempts at drama feel a bit underwhelming. It’s not meant to be a horror short so as the fever-plagued populace turn to violence it’s not presented graphically onscreen, but viewers are still meant to feel the impact. That doesn’t happen though, at least not until the conclusion when Yim presents the end as something of a beginning.
“The Heavenly Creature” is Kim’s singular contribution here, and it features an IT guy arriving onsite at a monastery to service the resident robot. The android model RU-4 goes by the name In-myung and has become one with the monks. He has spiritual highs, he speaks philosophically and it’s believed he may be approaching enlightenment. The powerful corporation that built him shows up demanding his destruction, but the monks and In-myung himself have other plans.
The company’s president appears bragging about their abilities and influence and insisting that no robot should be allowed to threaten man. In-myung isn’t raising his metal fists against anyone, but he may be threatening mankind in an entirely different level. The segment has much to say about our corporate culture in a short amount of time, but it never does so at the expense of its message. Enlightenment is not about learning as much as it is about remembering.
The film closes with Yim’s “Happy Birthday” and another literal end to life as we know it. An asteroid is heading toward Earth, and while the newscasters argue about the cause, damage and fallout from their own personal infidelities one family goes underground to their fully stocked bunker. Min-seo counts down the final hours alongside her parents and uncle, but when astrophysicists discover a peculiar trait of the asteroid she discovers something as well. The impending asteroid impact is her fault.
Like his first segment, Yim fills the closer with laughs at the expense of mankind’s absurdity in the face of life and death. The aforementioned newscasters bring laughs as they fall apart on air, and a Home Shopping Network segment offering personal Life Pods is hilarious in its dialogue and the unspoken actions happening behind the hosts. It’s a step up from the opening segment though in that the more serious elements ring true as well. Ji-hee Jin is adorable and heartbreaking as the little girl carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she anchors the segment with her recognition of the importance of family in good times and bad.
Doomsday Book is an unexpectedly low-key affair for a film about the end of the world, but it’s that contemplative, insightful and humorous presentation that makes it all the more powerful. It’s uneven at times and its weightiest tale comes in the center, but the overall effect is one of appreciation and wonder for the human experience.
The Upside: Like the best science fiction, Jee-woon Kim’s segment offers smart commentary on mankind’s present; humanity remains the focus amidst the carnage; confirms Kim’s ability to work in the short form
The Downside: Like almost all anthology films the quality is inconsistent; leads off with weakest segment
On the Side: Doona Bae stars in Pil-sung Yim’s 2nd segment, but she also had a lead role in Jee-woon Kim’s The Host