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[Herald Interview] Director Um Tae-hwa explores Koreans' ‘love and hate’ of apartments in ‘Concrete Utopia’

Um says his No. 1 rule in directing is to find great actors, and then trust them

By Kim Da-sol

Published : Aug. 9, 2023 - 12:19

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Director Um Tae-hwa of “Concrete Utopia” (Lotte Entertainment) Director Um Tae-hwa of “Concrete Utopia” (Lotte Entertainment)

Director Um Tae-hwa, who has returned with dystopian thriller “Concrete Utopia” seven years after “Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned,” which led to him receiving the best new director award at Korea's Grand Bell Awards that year, has delved into Koreans' “love and hate” of apartments in this new film.

“The reason I was focused on the apartment was that because I was also born and raised in that space. As I delved into what 'apartment' means for Koreans, I realized it is the subject of both love and hate, which is quite sad. Some people are happy because their apartment is an asset, but others are crying because of the rising prices of apartments, which they can’t afford,” director Um told The Korea Herald in Seoul on Tuesday.

“Those mixed feelings led me to bring a black comedy tone to this dystopian film,” he explained.

Director Um Tae-hwa’s “Concrete Utopia” is a dark, black comedy disaster thriller that tells the story of apartment building residents whose homes actually threaten their lives. Residents of Hwanggung Apartment building No. 103, the only building that has survived a destructive earthquake, initially see their building as a “utopia,” but it soon becomes a dystopia when non-residents start to flock to the building in the wake of the disaster.

Though based on the second part of the "Pleasant Bullying" webtoon by Kim Soong-nyoong about an earthquake and its aftermath, called “Pleasant Neighbors,” which begins in the basement of a school, the story was rewritten and adapted by director Um. He said he wanted to change the original to feel much bigger and larger in scale, as well as make the protagonists more active whereas the original webtoon's characters seem more passive.

“After bringing in the keyword, ‘apartment,’ I thought about which kind of characters would fit the setting best, and it was a newlywed couple who got a loan to purchase their home. After developing the characters, I was able to see how the apartment functions even more significantly in this film,” Um said.

Compared to his two previous films, “Concrete Utopia” is much larger in scale. It’s one of the big four tentpole films being released here this summer. As of Wednesday morning, it has topped ticket reservations in local box offices, surpassing “Smugglers” and “Oppenheimer,” which open next week.

“It’s not like I had to do this large-scale film, but rather, naturally, the distributor increasing the scale and the addition of great actors encouraged me to take on such a challenge," Um said.

"As my No. 1 rule in directing is to find great actors, I spend significant time searching for the right actor and communicating with them regarding the story. I’m really satisfied with my cast in the film."

Actor Lee Byung-hun, who once again does a fantastic job portraying a complex, multi-dimensional character as the story unfolds, did an excellent job expressing the black comedic atmosphere in “Concrete Utopia,” Um said.

“I have been particularly drawn to black comedy films. (For example,) I’m sure that I’m the type of cinephile who can watch director Park Chan-wook’s ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ and laugh," Um shared.

"Lee, who also loves black comedy films, knows the point of black comedy and in which scenes he should add certain acting, like slapstick elements. This kind of acting of his creates the tone and mood in the early part of the film,” Um added.

Having worked with auteur director Park for many years as an assistant director, Um said he learned a lot from Park, who is known as a master of detail.

“The reason I was obsessed with putting details in the film was to really focus on expressing the film hyperrealistically. I wanted to shoot the film inside an actual apartment building but it was too difficult to do that, so that’s why I created a life-size three-story apartment set outside of a city. I asked the art team to gather all the doors, handrails and other materials from old apartments that were to be demolished for redevelopment. That also added to the realism,” he added.

“Concrete Utopia” (Lotte Entertainment) “Concrete Utopia” (Lotte Entertainment)

Another thing he has continued to keep in mind from his days working with director Park has been to trust his staff and actors.

“Trusting your staff and actors has had the impact of the staff both strongly believing in the film and taking on a sense of responsibility for it. In that context, I’m really grateful for having worked with such a great team for this film,” he added.

“Concrete Utopia” opened in local theaters Wednesday.