In Concrete Uptopia, a massive earthquake rips through Seoul and reduces the entire city to rubble. But not all is lost. In the heart of Seoul, the Hwang Gung Apartments remains standing, and the film follows the building’s residents as they fight for survival in this new world. Starring Lee Byung-hun, Park Seo-joon and Park Bo-young, Concrete Uptopia is South Korea’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards.
Lee Byung-hun plays Young-tak, who is appointed as the Resident Delegate and tasked with leading the residents of Hwang Gung Apartments to survive the disaster’s aftermath. Park Seo-joon plays Min-sung, who is married to Myung-hwa (Park Bo-young) and becomes a trusted member of Young-tak’s team venturing outside the apartment to look for food and equipment.
The cast, along with director Um Tae-hwa, attended the film’s glitzy North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month. Speaking to NME at the festival, the three actors tell us more about what it was like to work with one another, seeing the reaction of the audience at TIFF and the possibility of the film being nominated for an Oscar.
Park Seo-joon, who’s perhaps best known for his role in the hit K-drama Itaewon Class, says that it was “very refreshing” to watch how the audience at TIFF responded to the film during its gala premiere. “I’m used to seeing Korean audiences in Korean cinemas, so seeing the people at the festival was amazing and very memorable for me.”
Meanwhile, Park Bo-young shares that she was “astonished” by the scale of the premiere, despite having attended TIFF twice before. Though, this is the first time that one of her films has premired at the Roy Thomson Hall, the biggest theatre at the festival. “I was also a little bit worried because the film is very Korean and has very Korean elements,” she adds. “But watching it together with the audience, I realised that they knew exactly when to laugh and they caught the right moments.”
This year’s festival experience was also wildly different for Lee Byung-hun, who made his appearance in 2016 for The Magnificent Seven. “It was with a big cast from Hollywood, with a big commercial film. It’s very different this time coming with Korean actors for a Korean film,” says Lee, recalling his past TIFF visit. “Premiering here, the audience’s response to Concrete Utopia was great, so this made me really happy. I am very proud to be on this project.”
A still from ‘Concrete Utopia: Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
Lee Byung-hun tells NME that “curiosity” has been the biggest driver behind the roles he has played throughout his career. “When I’m reading the script, [I’m] looking at the character and thinking about how I would be able to express and play the role,” he says. Knowing that, it’s no surprise that Lee’s character drives a lot of the film’s momentum, with his background and past shrouded in mystery. “There’s no one you can specifically say is a villain or an angel,” Lee says. “With the role of Young-tak, my primary concern was to show him gaining power and how he changes after acquiring power.”
For Park Bo-young, however, it was enough to have a chance to work with Lee, calling him someone most Korean actors “want to work with at least once” in their career. “I was very honoured to be in this project with him but at the same time, I was a little bit worried,” Park Bo-young says. “While filming with him, there was a lot of dissatisfaction within me. I would think, ‘Why am I not good enough?’”
The actress adds that she later eased into her role after reflecting on how Myung-hwa’s character is actually quite similar to herself. Park Bo-young, however, found herself much more at ease with Park Seo-joon, who plays her husband in the movie. “Having to play a couple together, I was wondering how we can get familiar with each other,” Park Bo-young shares. “But he was very comfortable to work with and his personality is really good, so we were able to work harmoniously without worrying about these little aspects.”
A still from ‘Concrete Utopia: Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
In Concrete Utopia, the characters grapple with surviving the disaster through a harsh winter but the four-month shoot took place during Korea’s summer. Cast members had to trudge around in thick coats when the cameras were rolling. “I would say the hardest part was being so hot on set and trying to cool down,” Park Seo-joon says.
Beyond the cast, the actor also gives a shout out to those working behind the scenes, singing high praises for the film’s “very realistic” set. The production team had built a three-storey set to replicate the scale of the apartments, while the graphics teams simulated more than 100 versions of the ground rupturing during the earthquake to find the most realistic take.
Having worked in the entertainment industry for more than a decade, Park Seo-joon has experienced a meteoric rise to become one of Korea’s biggest stars. Yet, he says that all he wants as an actor is to “be in many different types of projects”. Notably, he’ll be appearing in The Marvels later this year. “I feel the most alive when I’m on set, acting,” he says. “I guess it’s the feeling that I am of worth in this world. I think it also helps me mature as I’m contemplating different things.”
As for Concrete Uptopia being South Korea’s pick for the 2024 Oscars, while Park says he is “excited” about the prospect, it would be more important and meaningful to him if the film is available to a larger audience. “Of course, if it goes to the Oscars, a lot more people will be exposed to the movie and be able to see it,” he adds. “I’m hoping and wishing, but trying not to expect too much.”
Concrete Utopia was released in South Korea on August 9