‘Doomsday Book’ Review
This is the way the world ends; not with a whimper, or with a bang, but with a plague of mad cow infected zombies, a sentient robot who attains spiritual enlightenment, and a very unusual meteor strike, in that order. The Korean anthology film ‘Doomsday Book’ imagines these three different scenarios for the end of the world, and if this be doomsday, it be kind of underwhelming, like a mediocre ‘Twilight Zone’ marathon where every episode has the same basic twist.
In the first story, ‘Brave New World’ directed by Yim Pil-sung, a young man named Seok-woo (Ryu Seung-beom) inadvertently kickstarts a zombie apocalypse when he throws away a spoiled apple. The apple absorbs some kind of bad voodoo from something in a dumpster, gets processed into cattle feed and fed to cows, who are infected and slaughtered, and then cooked by unsuspecting customers in a Korean restaurant — including Seok-woo, out on a date with a girl named Yoo-min (Go Joon-hee). In the second story, ‘Heavenly Creature’ directed by Kim Jee-woon, a robot repairman (Kim Kang-woo) is sent to a Buddhist temple to deactivate a malfunctioning unit that claims to have achieved enlightenment and is being worshipped by the monks as a deity. In the last story, “Happy Birthday,” also by Yim, a girl (Jin Ji-hee) tries to buy a billiards ball online and somehow orders a gigantic planet-destroying asteroid instead.
These are all valid premises for apocalyptic tales, and they all have a few inspired moments. Jee-woon’s robo-prophet is an incredible special effect, and its slow, graceful movements and piercing gaze suggest a creature that does indeed possess a soul. The way ‘Brave New World’ follows one poor infected man’s descent from lovesick loser to flesh-craving beast reaps some emotional dividends. And Jin Ji-hee gives perhaps the best performance in the entire anthology as a child coming of age and coming to grips with the reality of what she has done.
But despite the occasional highlights, ‘Doomsday Book”s three shorts don’t stand on their own or work together as a singular whole. Yim brings almost nothing new to the zombie genre, and almost no sense of drama or tension to the end of all there is via interplanetary impact. Kim’s last two features, ‘The Good The Bad The Weird’ and ‘I Saw the Devil’ positively crackled with visual energy, but ‘Heavenly Creature’ is just one scene after another of people (and a robot) standing around, spouting off about its themes. It’s a philosophy lecture with good After Effects.
Nothing quite coheres, and the pieces all seem slight and slightly at odds with one another: Yim’s films are darkly comic, with lots of media satire; Kim’s is almost pretentiously serious. ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Heavenly Creature’ argue that mankind’s end will be ushered in by a sort of Darwinian evolution of the species, and each explores differing notions about our place in the universe and the nature of God; ‘Happy Birthday’ is mostly just a goof about a bunch of weirdos preparing to go into a fallout shelter. We keep switching gears, but awkwardly, like a kid who’s just been given a ten-speed and hasn’t quite mastered how to handle the pedals.
‘Doomsday Book’ is certainly not as dire as the fates that await its characters, and there’s something particularly intriguing about Kim’s idea of how humanity would react if they created something that grew beyond its control. Unfortunately, the film never quite rises to the level of dramatic potential inherent in its stories. These tales should have enormous stakes and massive emotions. Yim and Kim’s versions feel like a couple of talented directors noodling around on the idea of apocalypse, repeatedly.‘Doomsday Book’ is screening at Fantastic Fest 2012.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’