Doomsday Book is a loosely-connected three-film anthology dealing with three very familiar science fiction themes; a viral outbreak, a sentient machine, and an end of the world scenario called Brave New World, Heavenly Creature, and Happy Birthday respectively.
In Brave New World, directed by Hansel and Gretel's Yim Pil-Sung, we're introduced to Yoon Seok-Woo, a nerdy military scientist who has been left home alone (aaaaaaa!) by his overbearing parents and sister. For reasons that aren't quite clear, he unwittingly causes a virulent zombie plague by failing to properly separate his recycling. The resulting chaos is tempered a bit with an undercurrent of a love story that manifests itself just as the outbreak is happening. It's a cute, funny little vignette that unfortunately attempts to elevate itself to more philosophical ground despite not being anywhere deep enough for this. Still, it hits the right notes up to that point and is generally enjoyable.
Heavenly Creature, directed by Kim Ji-Woon of I Saw The Devil fame, tells the story of a future where household robots are commonplace and accepted as part of society. We are introduced to an advanced, humanlike robot that works as a guide at a Buddhist temple that claims to have attained enlightenment and, in fact, is considered by the monks to be the Buddha himself. Of the three films in this collection, this is the only one that's played entirely straight (to its great benefit), with no twinge of humour or lightness at all. The robot, RU-4, is remarkably expressive, all things considered, and the slow, deliberate pace of this segment helps to this end. This is the segment most likely to stick with the audience, as its haunting visuals are meticulously crafted and the philosophizing never comes off as heavy-handed. A remarkable, highly introspective departure from Kim Ji-Woon's often surreal, hyperviolent films.
Happy Birthday, also by Yim Pil-Sung, rounds out the anthology, with a mix of touching, heartfelt drama, genre conventions, and dark, satirical humour that more closely mirrors Brave New World than Heavenly Creature. We're introduced to Min-Seo, panicked because she's damaged the 8-ball from her father's billiards table. She frantically orders one from the Internet, which sets in motion a bizarre end-of-the-world situation that places her family and everyone else in peril. Peppered with light humour coming from Min-Seo's family and her neighbors, all hunkered down in a homemade bomb shelter, as well as the hilarious end-of-the-world newscasts that reminded me of the best of Kent Brockman from The Simpsons, Happy Birthday ultimately satisfies with a surprising ending and a feeling, however outwardly bleak, that everything might just be okay.
Doomsday Book works better in practice than one would assume from its disjointed themes. It's not very cohesive, but that can be forgiven in a piece like this. It's easy to see why this picked up the Jury Prize at the Fantasia Festival this year — it begins and ends on very crowd-pleasing notes and slips in a well-made philosophical piece in between. If nothing else, this anthology should serve to introduce new viewers of Korean cinema to the two remarkable directors, Yim Pil-Sung and Kim Ji-Woon, on display here. Their back catalogues are more than worth exploring, as they are some of the most striking voices in cinema today.
Stay tuned all week for more reviews from the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. You can find them all here.
This review was written by Sachin Hingoo, a freelance writer when he is not working at an office job that is purpose-built for paying the bills while he works as a freelance writer. His writing has appeared on Mcsweeneys.net, the CBC Street Level Blog, Ohmpage.ca, and The Midnight Madness Blog for the Toronto International Film Festival. He has also been featured at Toronto lecture series Trampoline Hall (which is rumored to be excellent). His mutant power is 'feigning interest'. You can read all of his posts here.
Photo: A still from the film 'Heavenly Creature', one of the three films in this anthology.