Tuesday, October 16, 2012

HIFF ’12: Doomsday Book

The Singularity has become a frequent theme of science fiction novels in recent years, but it has not factored into many films or television shows.  Finally, a bold Korean end of the world anthology feature tackles the Singularity, from a wholly original angle.  There will also be Mad Cow infected zombies and a giant interstellar billiard ball on a collision course with Earth in Yim Pil-sung & Kim Jee-woon’s Doomsday Book (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Yim’s lead-off Brave New World is a zombie flick Oprah could get behind.  Military research scientist Yoon Seok-woo finally meets an attractive woman who seems interested in him.  Unfortunately, she indulges his taste for barbeque.  He should have humored her vegan inclinations.  Yoon will be among the first turned into violent, vomiting zombies by widespread contaminated beef.

Frankly, Brave largely plays like an epidemic movie, such as Park Jung-woo’s recent Deranged, except with liberal helpings of gross-out humor.  It hardly blazes any genre trails, but Koh Joon-hee’s sensitive work somewhat humanizes the bedlam as Yoon’s potential love interest.

Kim’s middle story, Heavenly Creature, is something else entirely.  In-myung, a robot owned by a Buddhist monastery, has reportedly attained not just consciousness, but also enlightenment.  A technician has been summoned in hopes that he can tell whether RU-4 unit (a nod to Čapek’s R.U.R., perhaps?) is actually the Buddha.  This request confuses him to the point of peevishness.  Yet, he is still reluctant to immediately implement the UR Company’s harsh protocols regarding newly sentient robots.

Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Kim Yi-yong, Heavenly is an unusually thoughtful genre outing that quietly packs a powerful punch.  While dealing with some heady subject matter, including the meaning of life and the Singularity, he also coaxes some deeply affecting performances from his cast, particularly from the Kim Gyu-ri as the Bodhisattva Hye-joo, who desperately tries to save the enlightened robot.  This is truly an award caliber film.

The concluding Happy Birthday fits somewhere between the prior two films in terms of intelligence and quality, which makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, considering it was co-directed by Yim and Kim.  A giant eight-ball is hurtling towards Earth and young Park Min-seo might have inadvertently summoned it, but only her goofy uncle takes her seriously.

Unlike the first two constituent short films, Birthday really delivers on its doomsday promise, rendered with some reasonably presentable sci-fi special effects.  Yet, it is also strangely upbeat, positively portraying the resiliency of the family unit, albeit a rather eccentric one in the case of the Parks.  It also savagely skewers the Korean media’s talking heads.  Led by the impressive young Jin Ji-hee, Birthday’s small ensemble nicely darts back and forth between comedy to drama, without skipping a beat.

Ranging in quality from okay to outstanding to quite good, the films constituting Doomsday Book probably average out to very-good-plus.  Regardless of the pseudo-math, Kim’s Heavenly Creature is so strong, it single-handedly earns the film a very high recommendation.  Fit for SF geeks and the philosophically inclined, Doomsday Book screens tomorrow (10/17) and this Sunday (10/21) as part of the 2012 HIFF.  The centerpiece selection of this year’s NYAFF, it should have plenty of action ahead of it on the festival circuit.