This review was originally published on July 31, 2012…
Anthology films are making a comeback, especially in the domain of genre cinema. The results of these types of collaborations are predictably hit and miss, but Korean masters Yim Pil-sung (Hansel & Gretel) and Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life) make for a compelling team in their apocalypse themed Doomsday Book.
First up is Yim, with Brave New World, a K-drama version of Shaun of the Dead that starts out hysterically funny and ends up annoyingly pedantic. Our protagonist is a hopeless schlub whose stereotypically bourgeois family leave him at home so they can vacation on the beach while he finishes his stint in the army. Left to fend for himself and clean out their horrible den of consumerism, he unknowingly sets in motion a series of events that result in a 28 Days Later meat-born zombie plague.
Next up is Kim with Heavenly Creature, the gorgeous and elegiac tale of a robot who attains enlightenment in a Buddhist monastery. More of a philosophical apocalypse than a literal one, gorgeous cinematography and Kim’s trademark sense of pacing make this center film the heart of the anthology, figuratively as well as literally. While stories of robotic awakening are most commonly viewed through a Judeo-Christian lens where creation and soul are the chief concerns, Kim’s take is so fresh, beautiful and heartbreaking that it alone is enough to recommend the film. While the dialogue is often long and brutally philosophical, great performances and masterful composition keep the viewer engaged throughout.
The last film is Yim’s again, this time taking absurdity to another level altogether with Happy Birthday, the story of a young girl who tries to order a pool ball online and accidentally orders a meteor apocalypse instead. Much like Brave, the real star here is Yim’s goofy sense of humor, particularly in the short television clips that happen outside of the main narratives. In another film, or even stretched out to feature length, neither of Yim’s sections would have played especially well, but they are perfect bookends to Kim’s heady philosophy. Happy Birthday in particular is such a welcome break from reality or sense, that the laughs are perhaps magnified by the juxtaposition.
Predictably uneven, but with some real surprises hidden inside, Doomsday Book functions better as the sum of its parts, but it is also strong enough that no one part is capable of sinking the film as a whole.