Blu-Ray Review: “Doomsday Book”

A scene from Ji-woon Kim's short "Heavenly Creature" in the anthology film "Doomsday Book"“Doomsday Book” is an anthology film comprised of three shorts from two preeminent Korean directors, one of whom Western audiences are familiar with (Ji-woon Kim, who made the cult favorites “The Good, The Bad and the Weird” and “I Saw the Devil”) and another who they’ll now want to know more about (Pil-Sung Yim). Yim’s two shorts, “A Brave New World” and “Happy Birthday,” bookend the film, while Kim’s “Heavenly Creature” acts as the centerpiece. I haven’t the faintest clue what each director’s work has to do with the other’s–all three shorts deal with dystopian scenarios, but the comparisons end there–so the collaboration is a bit perplexing. But each of the parts work incredibly well within themselves, so I can’t not recommend “Doomsday Book.”

“A Brave New World,” Yim’s opener, is the least original short of the bunch, but still excels as a straightforward genre exercise. Suk-woo (Seung-bum Ryu) disposes of mysterious toxic waste from his family’s apartment, which is then composted back into the food supply for cattle, leading to beef that infects the human populace with a zombie virus. Conveniently, Suk-woo is the first victim. Writer/director Yim conducts “A Brave New World” as a glorious mishmash of tones and ideas, albeit familiar ones. The initial sequence of the virus cycling from Suk-woo’s dumpster to his mouth recalls the brilliant final scene of Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion.” There’s also a thread between Suk-woo and a romantic interest that’s delightfully humorous in its awkwardness, as well as the inevitable climactic zombie action. And I’d be remiss not to mention the social commentary, which focuses on the often distorted coverage of catastrophes provided by live television newscasts. “A Brave New World” undoubtedly would have run out of steam as a full feature–it’s more viscerally effective than ideologically complex–but as a half-hour short, it’s a rush.

The weirdness factor is upped tenfold in Yim’s closing short, “Happy Birthday.” After losing her pool-junkie father’s prized eight-ball, a young girl (Ji-hee Jin) orders a replacement online, which arrives two years later in the form of an asteroid hurling towards earth. Outside of more satire about the hysteria fostered by TV news, “Happy Birthday” mostly just operates as hallucinatory surrealism. But it isn’t void of underlying meaning. One could certainly read the short as a deconstruction of the usual apocalypse film, like Roland Emmerich’s “2012,” which in truth is just as silly, but puts on a straight face under the assumption that the illusion of realism makes a disaster scenario more thrilling. Yim proves this notion wrong: “Happy Birthday” is never to be taken seriously–the antagonist is an eight-ball asteroid, for crying out loud–but it’s a blast nonetheless.

Sandwiched between Yim’s high-energy, high-concept works is a literally meditative one from Kim. “Heavenly Creature” is set in a future in which helper robots have become common household devices. Do-won Park (Kang-woo Kim) is a technician called to take a look at a model used at a Buddhist monastery. At the monastery, Do-won discovers that the robot is not malfunctioning in a typical way; instead, it claims to be a monk who has reached Enlightenment. Is this reason for deactivation? Certainly, the corporation that produces the robots thinks so, but for Do-won, the monks, and the viewer, this is makes for quite a moral and philosophical conundrum. Writer/director Kim touches on mostly well-worn ‘man vs. machine’ themes–viewers may recall “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blade Runner,” and “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” when watching–but he does so with such elegance and visual inventiveness that it feels fresh. “Heavenly Creature” is the most formally accomplished short in “Doomsday Book,” with one downright spectacular shot that swoops from an overhead to a medium-shot, maintaining immaculate composition the entire time.

Still, the question remains: Why are Yim and Kim’s seemingly unrelated shorts in one collection? My guess would be that the decision was practical, rather than artistic: the potential audience for a feature-length anthology is much larger than the potential audience for individual half-hour short-films. I suppose viewers should just be thankful that “Doomsday Book” allows them to experience these three engrossing stories, even if it doesn’t exactly feel like a unified film on the whole.

Blu-Ray Video and Audio: As usual, Well Go USA’s presentation is virtually flawless. “Doomsday Book” was shot on film, and the transfer maintains the rich color saturation and deep contrast of the source format. Detail is strong, and there are no nagging issues like artificial edge-enhancement or banding. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack has great range, seamlessly transitioning from the loudness of the zombie chaos in “A Brave New World” to the quietness of the monastery in “Heavenly Creature” and then back to chaos in “Happy Birthday.”

Special Features: Only the film’s minute-long trailer is included. This is a disappointment, given I would have especially loved to hear the two filmmaker’s talk about each other’s work and why they collaborated. The production supposedly took about a decade to complete (they initially had a third filmmaker onboard), so it also would have been interesting to learn about how the final product differs from what was originally envisioned.

Movie Grade: B+
Disc Grade: A for presentation, F for extras
The Verdict: Rent it