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Korean anthology film Doomsday Book is a cautionary tale about the dangers of technological dependence and human fragility. Directors Jee-woon Kim (I Saw the Devil) and Pil-sung Yim (Hansel and Gretel) create three separate, tonally unique stories that relate in broad themes only. Doomsday Book is an interesting experiment with gorgeous visuals, but each story feels emotionally distant and stunted due to the film's structure. A zombie outbreak, enlightened robot and eight-ball asteroid provide the film's thrills, and Doomsday Book is at minimum an imaginative experience.
The first chapter, "Brave New World," concerns Suk-woo (Seung-beom Ryu), a nerdy researcher left home alone when his family goes on vacation. Suk-woo takes out the family's trash, and a rotten apple makes its way through the city's waste management system to become part of a cow's feed. Things come full circle when Suk-woo and his date eat the same, now toxic, cow for dinner, which turns them into flesh-eating zombies. Kim's "Heavenly Creature" takes an I, Robot-esque automaton and gives it human sentience. The robot works at a Buddhist monastery, and the monks are frightened when it claims to have achieved enlightenment. A young service technician, Park Do-won (Kang-woo Kim), diagnoses the robot and finds it operating correctly. The final story, "Happy Birthday," is the most bizarre. A young girl, Min-seo (Ji-hee Jin), orders her father a replacement billiards eight-ball on the Internet, only to have it delivered in the form of an asteroid hurtling toward earth.
The directors outdo themselves with the out-there stories in Doomsday Book, but its chapter-book narrative inevitably isolates each segment. "Brave New World" is a blunt condemnation of Korean politics and its news media, and, while some of the jabs went over my head, Yim proves quite the satirist in this segment and "Happy Birthday." It seems Yim has a bone to pick with journalists, particularly television newscasters, and there are some hilarious scenes with clueless anchors prepping for doomsdays of both the zombie and asteroid variety. "Brave New World" lampoons its patriarchal society, and poor, timid Suk-woo escapes his overbearing father only to run headfirst into a global pandemic.
Kim's "Heavenly Creature" is weightier and decidedly less fun. Its critiques of corporate domination and religious hypocrisy aren't particularly enlightening, and its machine-finds-enlightenment backbone is less affecting than it wants to be. All three stories pose interesting questions, but 40-odd minutes for each is not enough time to fully explore these themes. Had the stories been more intertwined, Doomsday Book may have had time to better develop its thesis. These talented directors do have keen eyes for staging and aesthetics, and Doomsday Book looks quite striking, especially the "Heavenly Creature" segment with its candlelit temples and ice-white robots. Fans of Korean cinema will appreciate the self-aware and sometimes bizarre humor, most present in "Happy Birthday." This surreal final chapter tackles everything from online shopping and obesity to absentee parents and adultery. Doomsday Book is highly ambitious, and, while it gets bogged down with theoretics, at least it has something to say.
The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is sharp and slick, and perfectly complements the film's visuals. Detail is excellent in each segment, and there is little grain or noise to give away the 35 mm source. Colors are explosive and black levels strong, and images absolutely pop off the screen. No digital anomalies are present.
The Korean 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is strong, with excellent separation and clarity. Dialogue is clear and balanced appropriately with effects and score, and the surround speakers are used for ambient and action effects. The subwoofer comes to life for scenes with the renegade asteroid and hungry zombies, and action effects rumble from the front to rear speakers. English subtitles are available, and the disc also includes a Korean 2.0 DTS-HD mix.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release with snazzy robot disc art is packed in an Elite Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in an embossed slipcover. Sadly, the only extra is a trailer (0:57/HD).
Korean anthology film Doomsday Book tackles a lot of controversial topics and nebulous themes in less than two hours. Its three-story structure, from directors Jee-woon Kim and Pil-sung Yim, robs it of depth, and some of the grad-school theology gets lost in translation. Nevertheless, the film's visuals are beautiful, and some of the humor and anthropology hits its mark. Rent It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.