Doomsday Book (US - BD RA)
Gabe's streak of disappointing anthology films finally ends with this Korean release
When I reviewed The Good, The Bad, The Weird, I picked Kim Ji-woon as number three on my personal ‘master list’ of directors to come out of South Korea’s modern wave, just behind Park Chan-wook (the Vengeance Trilogy, Thirst, I’m a Cyborg and That’s OK) and Bong Joon-ho ( Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother). Kim has an incredibly eclectic skill set, including a sharp sense of humour ( The Quiet Family), a classy sense of baroque horror ( A Tale of Two Sisters), and stylistic abilities with dynamic action ( A Bittersweet Life). Following The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Kim culled all of his talents to make I Saw the Devil, which is among the most thrilling, frightening, and intimate horror epics I’ve ever seen. I Saw the Devil is so good it may have set Kim above Bong, nipping at Park’s heels as the quintessential filmmaker in the region.
For this film, Doomsday Book (aka: Report on the Destruction of Mankind), we have to go back in time to 2006. The original production was scheduled to feature shorts from Kim, Yim Pil-sung, and Han Jae-rim ( The Show Must Go On), but, for whatever reason, Han’s section (billed as ‘a sci-fi musical retelling of William Sydney Porter’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’ about a woman's primal desires emerging when confronted with her last chance to survive after witnessing the end of the world’) was never completed. Then, in 2010, the unreleased two-thirds of Doomsday Book got more investor backing, and Kim and Yim collaborated on shooting a new third segment. This isn’t Kim’s first work on an anthology -– he directed the first segment ( Memories) of Three, a multi-lingual Asian horror anthology that was largely overshadowed by its sequel, Three…Extremes (which featured a Korean segment directed by Park Chan-wook). Co-director Yim previously directed Antarctic Journal, which starred superstar actors Song Kang-ho and Yu Ji-tae, and Hansel & Gretel. I didn’t have the time to watch these films, despite having access via Netflix instant streaming service, so his work here is my first exposure to his filmmaking prowess. Yim is credited as solo director on part one, Brave New World, and, according to the behind the scenes information, was the lead director on part three, Happy Birthday, where Kim mostly acted as an assistant. It appears that the numbers here note Doomsday Book as more Yim’s film than Kim’s.
Brave New World is co-written by Yim and Lee Hwan-hee, and follows an awkward, nerdy research scientist named Yoon Seok-woo (Ryu Seung-beom), who is left home alone when his slob parents and sloppy sister take a tropical vacation. While cleaning his family’s revolting trash, Seok-woo discovers a particularly rotten apple. He throws the apple out with the rest of the garbage. While it sits, its molecules mutate. The trash is picked up by the collector, and soon after finds its way into a cattle feed where the mutated, rotten apple is fed to a cow. The cow is slaughtered, cut, prepared, cooked, and served up to none other than Seok-woo and his date. Soon after, the new couple turn into flesh-eating zombies and begin the spread of a world-ending zombie virus. Brave New World is played mostly for quirky laughs and revels in the awkward sensibilities of the main character. Yim mixes and matches comedic styles, but gets the most mileage out of pure slapstick, which steadily increases in frequency as the short progresses. There are plenty of gross-out gags and genuinely gory bits, but the horror of the situation is tonally kept at bay by the comedy. My favourite bit comes when Yoon’s family returns from vacation and are attacked. As Yoon’s mother lies dying, she comments that her son really should try on the new pants she bought him on their trip, and his sister, who locks herself in the bathroom to escape him, takes a reprieve from screaming to have a quick pee. Yim also impresses with his montage storytelling, beginning with the rotten apple’s trip back to Yoon’s plate in the form of barbecued beef. Later, another montage efficiently tells the story of the zombie virus’ spread via news telecasts. Over a series of cuts, the correspondents devolve from stiff-lipped professional into singing dopey improvised folk songs.
The second section, which is written and directed by Kim all on his own, is titled Heavenly Creature. This short follows a young robotic technician named Park Do-won (Kim Kang-woo), who is sent to a Buddhist monastery by the UR Corporation to check an ‘RU4’ robot (voiced by Park Hae-il) who claims to have achieved enlightenment. The monks simply want verification that RU4 is working while the UR people are threatened by his evolution and would rather Do-won just shut him down. Heavenly Creature is a stoic sci-fi melodrama and has basically nothing in common with Yim’s two shorts. This probably should prove to be a tonal problem for the film on the whole, but actually ends up working quite well, especially given the tonal ups and downs of most South Korean ‘New Wave’ features. The obvious visual comparison here is Bjork’s ‘All is Full of Love’ music video, directed by Chris Cunningham, where two similar-looking robots make out in an arrestingly and disturbingly beautiful manner. The more obvious thematic comparison is something like I, Robot or AI – or, more precisely, the classic pulp sci-fi stories that inspired those films. It explores the now familiar moral possibilities of robots reaching human levels of self-awareness. Kim’s philosophical meditation occasionally gets away from him and delves into subject matter he simply can’t cover in a short timeframe, but the real problem here is an excess of speeches. The performances are all top-notch and the dialogue spouted is usually thematically relevant, but there’s a sense of over-explanation. Still, Kim is such a gifted visualist that these overly chatty sequences are consistently compelling, even poetic and, dare I say, rousing.
Happy Birthday is co-written by Yim and Jang Jong-ah, from an original story by Park Su-min. This final story follows a little girl named Park Min-seo (Jin Ji-hee), who damages her billiards-obsessed father’s (Lee Seung-jun) 8 ball and secretly orders a replacement from a mysterious online store. When her father nearly discovers her, she panics and instinctively throws the original ball out of the window, where it rolls down the street and into a glowing hole. Two years later, the world is threatened by an asteroid that is set to make landfall right on top of South Korea. As the family sets up their shelter for the apocalypse, the news flashes an image of the asteroid – which looks exactly like the 8 ball Min-seo tossed out the window. Happy Birthday is, more or less, a stylistic and tonal match to Brave New World. It’s less madcap and doesn’t really feature any nasty gags, but is mostly light-hearted and plays with the conventions of another overly familiar apocalyptic subgenre (the disaster movie). Yim’s best bits of dark comedy include a Home Shopping Network-style television show selling survival pods (the young lady modeling the item is inadvertently trapped and panics as the announcers continue calmly describing the product), an anchorwoman confessing her affair with her co-anchor on-air, and the survival of the human race depending on the exercise-cycle prowess of Min-seo’s parents (who are running the generator that powers her computer as she tries to cancel her order). This is also the one short that could probably sustain a feature narrative, though I get the feeling a bite-sized bit is preferable. The strangeness of the thing may have become exhausting.
According to specs, all three sections of Doomsday Book were shot on 35mm film. All three shorts were shot with different cinematographers – Jo Sang-yun on Brave New World, Kim Ji-young on Heavenly Creature, and Ha Seong-min on Happy Birthday. Brave New World starts off bright, with a bold, primary palette that extenuates its cartoony nature. Here, whites are cleanly blown out around heavy blacks to help pump the hue vibrancy. This contrasts nicely against the more textured nighttime sequences, which feature a more simplistic green palette, where the palette is less natural, specifically the abnormally and consistently yellow skin tones. The darkest interior shots show the most signs of grit and film grain while the rest of the short is generally so colour-corrected that it appears more like digital HD than film-based. Heavenly Creature features a similar golden tint, but applies it specifically to the monastery sequences. This warm look, highlighted with strong reds and supported with more heavy blacks, is contrasted against the colder grays and blues of Do-won’s clothing, which match his depressingly industrial apartment. Texture and pattern details are often obscured by tight focus and more blown-out white levels, which leaves backgrounds a bit soft (on purpose). Edges do not bleed, however. Though it features a generally clean look, this short also has quite a bit of grain and occasionally minor issues with fuzzy green noise between tighter line patterns. Happy Birthday is, once again, generally gold/yellow with greenish shadow tints very similar to Brave New World’s. This short features the busiest patterns and textures. These are often set beautifully way back in frame without any noticeable edge enhancement issues (which was a problem for early WellGo Blu-ray releases). Again, I don’t see a whole lot of grain or noise, which makes me wonder if Yim and Ha actually shot digital on HD (the end credits have ARRI and Kodak logos, assuming that means anything).
Doomsday Book features a strong, but, for the most part, vacuous DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Brave New World features more crisp and pointed sound effects, rather than layered elements. These mostly settle in the center channel, along with the dialogue. As people begin to ‘mutate,’ the soundtrack is given a bit more to do in terms of directional effects, including brief fisticuffs, crowd scenes, traffic, and fiery chaos, but music is the key aural component. Here, composer Mowg (who started working with Kim in 2010 when he composed the stark I Saw the Devil soundtrack) follows Yim’s quirky, cartoonish lead. The music starts bouncy, featuring soft percussion and a steady waltz rhythm. Key instruments include a xylophone and an accordion, which are mostly set in distinctive stereo channels. During the ‘darker’ moments Mowg whips out the electronica, which is especially intense during a ‘oonce oonce’ club sequence that delves into abstract noise as Seok-woo begins to hallucinate. Heavenly Creature is also a relatively stark episode, aurally speaking. Kim plays with silence in both the soft world of the monastery and the sterile sci-fi environments. The vast majority of sound here is dialogue, which is clearly centered with a bit of rear and surround echo, depending on environment. This time, the music also takes a back seat for most of the short, only coming out to play in the form of contemplative piano & cello duets, which do reverberate nicely into the stereo and surround channels. Happy Birthday is probably the most aurally expressive of the three shorts, but it’s still, generally speaking, relatively stark. There are some reasonably big moments, including quick-fire montage effects (computers buzzing, 8 balls rolling), the foreboding cry of air raid sirens, and, of course, the flaming demise of the planet as the giant 8-ball makes landfall. This is another mostly music-free entry, but there is an eerie piano/cello motif that repeats during the more dramatic moments, and a climatic acoustic guitar and string melody.
The only extras here are trailers for this and other WellGo releases.
Currently, both Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho are working on their English-language debuts. Bong’s film (which is co-produced by Park), Snow Piercer, is an ambitious sci-fi allegory starring Oscar winners/nominees John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, and Ed Harris, while Park’s film, Stoker, is a psychodrama staring the likes of Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, and Mia Wasikowska. I’d like to refer to this as the ‘Ang Lee approach’ to the Hollywood crossover. Meanwhile, Kim Ji-woon appears to be taking the ‘John Woo approach.’ His English language debut, The Last Stand, also marks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to a leading role after nearly a decade away from acting, which more or less tells audiences exactly what to expect. Doomsday Book co-director Yim Pil-sung doesn’t appear to have anything in the works, but, once again, both of his feature-length films, Hansel & Gretel (no relation to Tommy Wirkola’s upcoming Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) and Antarctic Journal, are available on Netflix instant at this time. Doomsday Book is a funny, beautiful, entertaining, and, at times, even moving motion picture anthology. This Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty great, but feels almost nothing in terms of extra material.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 11th December 2012
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 Korean
Easter Egg: No
Director: Yim Pil-sun and Kim Ji-woon
Cast: Kim Kang-woo, Kim Gyu-ri, Park Hae-il, Ryoo Seung-bum, Song Sae-byoek, Jin Ji-hee, Bae Doo-na
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Horror and Sci-Fi
Length: 114 minutes
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