By their very nature, anthology films are a mixed bag. They’ll contain two or three or four smaller stories – essentially ‘shorts,’ cobbled together into one complete film – usually connected by one central theme. The upside is that, if the theme is flexible enough to support multiple interpretations, the audience is treated to an insightful exploration from different (and differing) perspectives. The downside? There can be several, not the least of which is the viewer ends up stuck in a loop supportive of that main idea where nothing all that original unfolds not once but twice, or thrice, or … well, however many installments the producers managed to cram in there!
(NOTE: the following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Since DOOMSDAY BOOK is a collection of three short films, I’ll break them down individually for clarity.
In the first chapter, “Brave New World,” a brand new virus incorporated into the food supply by way of food recycling brings the city of Seoul to the brink of social collapse by turning its victims into zombies. The short is bookended with the tale of two young people who find one another on their first date – once the chaos begins, they’re forced by circumstances to go their separate ways; as fate requires, true love will find a way, and our lovers are re-united in the segment’s closing moments. In between, the story develops its satirical themes, showing us in some rather comical fashion, how civic leaders de-evolve while the rest of the world looks on. Technically, it’s all very accomplished with some impressive effects, but, in the end, I found much of it fairly routine ‘stock’ for a zombie picture. On my five star scale, I’d give it a strong three stars.
The second chapter, “The Heavenly Creature,” a temple’s service robot supplied by the UR Corporation experiences an epiphany, leaving the monks to believe they’ve found the latest incarnation of Buddha. The narrative focus for the tale explores the confusion experienced by the service technician sent by the company to diagnose whether the android is reparable or needs a system recall. This segment – from start to finish – is nothing short of brilliant; it’s chocked full of exceptional, probing dialogue with questions by real people trying to understand these curious circumstances and what it means for mankind. Also, there’s a wonderful little bit involving a debutante and failed her mechanical dog that explores humanity at its most crass. Technically, it’s exceptionally staged and photographed with some images – the sight of the droid locked in prayer – that’ll stay with you long after the story ends. On my five star scale, this one easily earns the highest praise with a perfect score.
In the last chapter, “Happy Birthday,” a little girl hoping to please her father logs on to the web and orders him a new eight ball for his pool table. Two years later, an unidentified meteor is heading straight for a collision with the Earth, and, to her surprise, she learns what role she may’ve played in mankind’s impending demise. This installment is a weaker satire than the first chapter, mostly because there’s little substance to the grand ‘reveal’ (which I won’t spoil); instead, the story takes a rather serpentine route to deliver the audience to its destination, and it ends up being relatively routine. I do think, however, that “Happy Birthday” could’ve been stronger with more focus on the comic characters – it’s a family, and they all clearly love one another despite their respective quirks. In this anthology format, there just wasn’t enough time for it all to mean that much. On the five star scale, I’d give it a middling two stars at best.
The single greatest strength to DOOMSDAY BOOK in the three-story format is that the audience doesn’t spend too much time with the lesser sections, making most of it feel fairly benign. The weakness – as I prescribed in my first paragraph – is that the directors delivered three stories of vastly differing appeal. Yes, they’re all sci-fi, giving us a glance at possible (but not all that probable) futures, but when the first and the final chapters feel more than a bit incomplete, I come away not feeling I’ve seen the best these stories had to offer (with the exception of “The Heavenly Creature”).
Still, I’d strongly argue that each of these ideas had great foundation for fuller pictures completely on their own. Granted, a full 90 minutes dedicated to the eradication of mankind by a magic-8-ball (not the game, but a legitimate 8-ball from a pool table set) may not seem all that revelatory, but you have to take it in context. I would’ve loved to spend more time in each of these visions, especially one where a robot uncovers its desire to pray, and that’s something to think about.
DOOMSDAY BOOK is produced by Gio Entertainment and Timestory. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Well Go USA Entertainment. As for the technical specifications, it all looks and sounds impressive, and each chapter boasts some very solid performances by all of the players. Also, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t point out that the feature won the 2012 Fantasia Cheval Noir Award; and was an official selection of the 2012 Hawaii International Film Festival, the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, and 2012 Fantastic Fest. Sadly, there are no special features to speak of.
RECOMMENDED. You like zombie films? Check! You like thoughtful heart-tugging science fiction flicks? Check! You like end-of-the-world tales told with more than a hint of irony? Check! Certainly, each piece of DOOMSDAY BOOK is solidly produced; but, as can happen all too often in anthology films, these stories end up wildly mixing influences and producing varying results. It’s safe to say that I would have rather seen each installment expanded and turned into its own feature – the zombie short had some solid ideas but methinks some of its dark humor was lost in translation, and the disaster from the heavens could’ve been elevated by more exploration of its decidedly quirky four main characters – because, in their present format, there just wasn’t enough. Only the middle chapter – the robot who found enlightenment – was strong enough to stand on its own, but I would’ve loved to have spent more time in that inspired, thought-provoking reality.
In the interests of fairness, I’m please to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA Entertainment provided me with a DVD screener of DOOMSDAY BOOK for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
Often have I said that to understand and appreciate Asian cinema, one must be ready to ask for the motivation of a story or a scene. It operates differently than Hollywood movies when its narrative is especially kept in an allegoric manner. Well, the director of “Hansel and Gretel”, Im Pil-Seung and the director of two awesome-st films “A Tale of Two Sisters” and “I Saw The Devil”, Kim Ji-Woon have joined together in directing a trilogy of stories under the film … more