At long last, I have finally started watching the Korean science-fiction triptych Doomsday Book.I wanted to watch it during my trip to Korea in May, but the film was already gone from the cinemas, even though it opened on April 20. Nice going, distributors (I think it was Lotte).
Doomsday Book is actually three short films, co-directed by Yim Pil-sung and Kim Jee-woon. Kim, of course, is one of Korea’s most highly regarded directors, knowns for constantly trying out different genres — Foul King (comedy about pro-wrestling), Tale of Two Sisters (gothic horror), Bittersweet Life (gangster noir), The Good, the Bad, the Weird (spaghetti western), and I Saw the Devil (hyper-violent and total shite).
Yim Pil-sung, on the other hand, is famous for being total box office poison. Antarctic Journal was a moody, ambient horror film about Korean explorers at the South Pole. It did not quite work, but at least it suggested possibilities and creativity. It also was one of the biggest money losers in Korea history (especially at the time it was released). Hansel & Gretel was a dark reinterpretation of the famous fairy tale. It completely did not work and suggested that the director might be really terrible (I reviewed it at my old website). After those two bombs, Yim was pretty much a filmmaking pariah, with no Korean production company or distributor willing to go anywhere near him.
But the funny thing is, in the Korean movie scene, he is pretty tight with a lot of the top Korean directors. That’s why he shows up in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host as a supporting character. And it also means that when Yim does get to make a movie, he is able to get top actors and support from Korea’s movie scene.
As I said, Doomsday Book is a triptych, with a segment about tainted food creating a zombie panic, a Buddhist robot, and a meteor crashing toward the Earth. Gord Sellar talked a lot about the film already, and, as with most things pertaining to Korean science fiction, he’s a good place to start.
Doomsday Book has been in the works for quite some time. I remember people talking about it years ago, and the Wikipedia page claims that production started in May 2006. But after Yim and Kim filmed their segments, financing fell through, and they were only able to raise the money to finish it last year.
Oh, SPOILER WARNING, of course.
So far, I have just seen the zombie segment, titled “A Cool New World,” about how a bad apple (literally) and some disgusting recycled organic matter leads to a kind of Mad Cow outbreak that created zombies. There is also a bit of a love story, although it is pretty weak and not terribly important. Mostly people eat tainted meat, then turn into zombies. There’s a lot of blood and gunk, but nothing too crazy violent and gory … In fact, I would say the most disturbing stuff are the real-life clips you see, like of pigs being pushed into pits for being killed during a hoof-and-mouth outbreak.
The amazing thing is that this was filmed in 2006, two years before the US beef freakout that shut down downtown Seoul for several weeks in 2008. Even more amazing, as Gord points out, is the film in no way blames outsiders for the plague, keeping the causes and agency totally directed at Korea. Kind of the opposite of The Host or Kim Seong-su’s coming film Flu (or, for non-s/f, Welcome to Dongmakgol).
Most of the film is, unsurprisingly, satire and social criticism, some of it quite funny and some of it silly. I’m sure I missed a lot of it, as it does come pretty fast and thick at times. There is a good long chunk that comes from a TV news-discussion program called 90-Minute Discussion, obviously a play off of KBS’s 100-Minute Discussion (100분토론). The program has a conservative woman named “Park Ho-Yeong” (actually played by Park Ho-yeong) from the “Hanauidang Best Hospital” who I bet is supposed to be Park Geun-hye of the Hannaradang conservative party (well, the party has changed names now, but that was its old name). Director Bong Joon-ho plays a progressive, wearing a casual hanbok, with a chart showing how the zombie virus outbreak coincides with conservative voting patterns. As the zombie plague gets worse, the show devolves into the host and speakers singing and playing music like from a 1980s university.
Hopefully I will get around to watching the next two segments later this week and post a few thoughts about them.
Anyhow, here’s the first trailer to Doomsday Book (with English subtitles):