Since as far back as humans have been creating technology, other humans have been worried about the effects of said technology on the rest of humanity. Computers, machines and technology make our lives possible, in certain ways (pacemakers, modern medical equipment and airplanes, to name but a few), while making them immeasurably more enjoyable in other ways (the internet, streaming movies and digital watches spring to mind). On the other hand, it’s hard to shake the nagging notion that we might be biting off a bit more than we can chew, technologically speaking. As machines, computers and artificial intelligence continue to evolve and become faster, smarter and more independent, will we eventually come to that nightmarish sci-fi scenario where the machines will become our masters? Should we even attempt to create a machine that thinks, let alone feels (providing this were possible) or is the resultant competition with humanity just a little too close for comfort? Or, to frame it in a more pop culture savvy way: at which point do we move from Robby the Robot to Demon Seed (1977)?
Films have been examining this question of “machine vs man” for at least the past eighty years, by this point, and the resulting consensus usually isn’t great: if left unchecked, technology may very well stomp the rest of us into the ground. One need look no further than The Terminator (1984) or The Matrix (1999) to get some notion of Hollywood’s take on this but overseas filmmakers have been dealing with the same subject since at least Fritz Lang’s visionary Metropolis (1927). Technological dystopia is perfect fodder for the movies, allowing filmmakers to not only traffic in the inherent fears associated with increased technological advancement (We’re going to be replaced!) but also in the inherent sense of wonder associated with fantastic new technological advancements (Look how neat and shiny our replacements are!): it’s a real “have your cake and eat it” scenario which, in certain ways, is what pop culture is all about. The recent South Korean science-fiction anthology film, Doomsday Book (2012), takes this technological conflict and runs with it, coming up with three separate, unique but, ultimately, cosmically intertwined tales that look at the Venn diagram where humans, machines and the unknown overlap.
While there’s been quite an abundance of horror-related film anthologies over the years, with films like Creepshow (1982), The Theatre Bizarre (2011), Chillerama (2011), V/H/S (2012) and The ABCs of Death (2012) stepping up for the Amicus-related anthologies that sprang up in the ’60s and ’70s, sci-fi-related film anthologies have been a bit fewer and further between. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of any sci-fi related anthologies at all, unless one wants to count The Twilight Zone television series. As strange as it seems, Doomsday Book really does seem to be the first of its kind or, at the very least, the first of its kind to surface in any kind of really accessible way. Unlike horror anthologies like The Theatre Bizarre or V/H/S, there is no wrap-around story in Doomsday book: rather, each of the three stories within are loosely connected in that they depict the various ways (albeit fantastic) that mankind might meet its end in our technologically advanced future. The first and final stories, A Brave New World and Happy Birthday are written and directed by Yim Pil-sung, while the middle (and best) story, The Heavenly Creature, is written and directed by Kim Jee-woon. All in all, Doomsday Book ends up being a fascinating, thought-provoking and extremely well-made film: if this really is one of the first sci-fi anthology films, let’s hope that it spawns a wave of worthy imitators.
The anthology kicks off with its most traditional, least sci-fi-oriented story, A Brave New World. Poor Yoon Seok-woo (Ryoo Seung-bum): he’s a nerdy military research scientist who’s been left behind to take care of his parents’ filthy house while his mother and father (Lee Kan-hee and Kim Roi-ha) take his bratty little sister (Hwang Hyo-eun) on a vacation. Seok-woo tosses all of the nasty kitchen refuse into the waste disposal bin and we follow the progress of one particular apple, which appears to be more rot than fruit, as it moves through various stages of the recycling process. In a supremely ironic development, the apple ends up coming back home to Seok-woo in the form of fertilizer that was fed to cattle that he consumes at a fancy restaurant with his girlfriend of three days, Kim Yoo-min (Go Joon-hee). Suffice to say that the food ends up disagreeing with Seok-woo and Yoo-min in the worst way possible, eventually leading to a full-scale onslaught of the walking dead. Writer-director Yim Pil-sung manages to craft a “traditional” zombie film in a highly unorthodox way, making for a consistently engaging and intriguing offering. Fusing a half a dozen disparate themes (ecological safeguards, food safety, vegetarian vs carnivorous lifestyles, familial responsibilities vs personal freedom, loss of inhibitions leading to a higher state of being, evolution of the human race) with an often unflinching level of gore and some sharp, incisive humor, A Brave New World is a pretty exemplary little zombie film. At 39 minutes, the film is actually about 10 minutes too short and could have used a punchier finale (although the under-lying symbolism is spot-on and really well-executed), but it’s a nice dispatch about the million little ways in which humans will eventually wipe ourselves from the planet.
Moving from the fairly ridiculous to the positively sublime, Kim Jee-Woon’s Heavenly Creature follows and must certainly stand as some of the more intriguing 40 minutes I’ve managed to spend in some time. Jee-woon’s film is a slow, solemn, hushed mini-masterpiece about the microscopic differences between man and machine, at least as far as enlightenment goes. The short ends up being the best kind of film in that it absolutely demands contemplation and reflection, not only during but also afterwards: I can’t imagine anyone being less than fully engaged with the short at all times. Heavenly Creature concerns a particularly vexing case for a young robot technician named Park Do-won (Kim Kang-woo). Do-won is a nice enough, if rather put-upon, robot expert who’s fully prepared to deal with the excruciating minutiae of life (an exceedingly daffy next-door neighbor and her malfunctioning robot dog) but is woefully unprepared to deal with the really big questions. One of these big questions rears its ugly head, however, when Do-won is sent on a service call to a local monastery in order to check on their RU-4 series robot named In-myung (Park Hae-il). It seems that In-myung has achieved enlightenment (or at least claims to) and the monks want Do-won to make sure that In-myung isn’t defective. As Do-won complains, however, you can open up a robot and fix a short-circuit, but you can’t run a system check to see if it’s actually Buddha.
In-myung is an exceptionally intelligent, well-spoken robot, however, and seems so sure of itself that, in short order, Do-won isn’t sure what to believe. Things become more complicated when his superiors from UR International show up and want In-myung powered-off, one way or the other. Seems that the powers that be are a little nervous about a robot being able to achieve enlightenment: if the RU-4s can do, well…they can probably do just about anything, including replacing humanity as the dominant “species.” In-myung may be more human than it seems, however, and the notion of self-preservation can be a powerful one: what might a supremely intelligent robot that thinks it’s Buddha do when its back is to the wall? What if, as the corporate bigwigs fear, the evolution of one group comes at the inevitable demise of another? But, most importantly: can a machine achieve enlightenment?
There are no shortage of big discussions going on in Heavenly Creature, which makes it all the more astounding that the short (only 40 minutes) manages to also be such a visceral, dramatic experience. While I would never dream of giving away any of the short’s numerous surprises and delights, suffice to say that In-myung leads to some truly thrilling moments, balanced out with some genuinely sad, powerful ones. In-myung is a truly awe-inspiring creation and any of the numerous scenes of him engaging in regular activities such as praying and talking inspire as much wonder (albeit in much smaller doses) as such classic works like 2001 (1968). Heavenly Creature is a deeply philosophical, poetic film but it’s also, in its own way, a deeply cautionary tale. We may marvel at the notion of In-myung achieving a higher state of being but we must also, at the end, ask ourselves what the notion of that really means for humanity and if we might already be a little too far out on the path to turn back now. An extraordinary film, under any circumstances, and certainly the highlight of Doomsday Book.
Following up the lofty heights of Heavenly Creature struck me as potentially problematic but, fortunately, Yim Pil-sung’s Happy Birthday is (mostly) up to the task. An impossibly strange, esoteric, occasionally frustrating but endlessly fascinating short, Happy Birthday takes our current fascination/obsession with online shopping and pushes it to its illogical extreme. In this case, young Park Min-seo (Jin Ji-hee) is in desperate need of a replacement 8-ball after she accidentally breaks the one belonging to her pool-obsessed father (Lee Seung-joon) and uncle (Song Sae-byeok). She tosses the damaged pool ball out the window (where we watch it roll ominously into a nearby hole) and frantically orders a new one from a suspiciously convenient, cheap and very odd website. Flash forward two years and South Korea is now being threatened with imminent destruction via a rapidly approaching meteor. Conspiracy theories and rumors of the meteor’s origin abound (everything from divine intervention to North Korean fuckery is discussed) but poor Min-seo thinks that the unidentified falling object looks awfully familiar. With the help of her confused but amiable uncle Hwan, Min-seo must do everything she can to prevent the upcoming apocalypse, save her parents and fix her terrible mistake. As Min-seo will find out, the internet can be just as vast and boundless as the farthest reaches of space and the concept of customer service is not a strictly human concept.
Of the three shorts, Happy Birthday is definitely the oddest and also, by contrast, the funniest. Truth be told, there’s some awfully funny stuff in here, whether it be the ridiculous commercials advertising the emergency shelters (the bit where the model gets stuck in the bunker is absolutely priceless), the outrageous TV news segments, which seem to be equal parts Benny Hill and Samuel Beckett or Min-seo bizarre family and their decidedly haphazard emergency shelter. While Happy Birthday is a decidedly lightweight concoction, especially when compared to the cerebral Heavenly Creature, it ends up being a more than suitable way to finish the anthology. For one thing, the short’s humorous tone (more so even than Pil-sung’s opening A Brave New World) helps to provide a nice contrast to the more somber, serious mood of the preceding film. Happy Birthday also manages to combine a post-Apocalyptic, dystopic future with a more hopeful tone (ala Firefly), giving viewers the impression that while everything may be other (relatively speaking), it doesn’t necessarily mean that humanity is over.
From a craft standpoint, Doomsday Book is one massively impressive offering. The shorts all look and sound amazing, particularly the chilly, brittle grace that is Heavenly Creature. Writer-director Yim Pil-sung was also responsible for the impressive, if frustrating, polar-themed horror film Antarctic Journal (2005) but co-writer-director Kim Jee-woon is probably the better know of the two: Jee-woon was responsible for the amazing gut-punch that was I Saw the Devil (2010), still one of the most powerful, horrific films I’ve ever seen, as well as the equally impressive A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) and the Arnold Swartzenegger-starring The Last Stand (2013), Jee-woon’s English-language debut. Jee-woon is a true artisan, a craftsman who’s able to fold pain and beauty together into some truly exquisite creations and Heavenly Creature is a consistently fine addition to his canon.
Throughout Doomsday Book, there’s almost a progression, a notion of evolution that leads us through the worst of mankind’s excesses (abuse to animals, the environment, ourselves and others around us) into the best (internal awakening that leads to enlightenment and benevolence, regardless of connection to any belief system or lack thereof) and, finally, to the most frightening step: whatever comes after. As Doomsday Book ends and the characters step off into the dawning of an entirely new kind of day, filled with the knowledge of not only our insignificance within the grander scheme of things but also the comforting notion that it’s okay to be insignificant, there’s a sense of optimism and hope to everything. The characters in Doomsday Book may have completely botched things up but, as long as there are more humans left to try, there will always be another time. This, of course, is the beauty (and the curse) of humanity: we’re nothing if not survivors.