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Doomsday Book
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by Jay Seaver

"The ends of the world and they do fine."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Anthology film "Doomsday Book" does not quite end the world in three ways, as one might expect it to do. Even more interesting is that the contemplative middle segment comes from noted action director Kim Jee-woon, whose unusual restraint provides a nice breather between Yim Pil-Sung's two tales of apocalyptic mayhem.

The package starts with "A Wonderful New World", in which lab technician Yoon Seok-woo (Ryoo Seung-bum) is left behind when his family goes on vacation because he technically has a month left to his military service - and they stick him with the job of cleaning their filthy apartment, too. It could be worse, though; he's got a date with beautiful Kim Yoo-min (Koh Joon-hee), and things go pretty well! At least, that is, until something in the rotten apple he threw into the compost bin mutates (in a zippy montage) and makes its way back through the food chain in the form of a zombie virus.

It has to be an apple, didn't it, which knocks humanity another level down from paradise? As symbols go, it's oddly ambivalent: Maybe the residents of Seoul are returning to the savage state of grace that existed before the knowledge of good and evil, and does the crisis come from allowing the apartment to get so disgusting or by returning its products to the environment? That's for the audience to decide; in the meantime, Yim delivers a fun but somewhat scattershot piece. It starts out as a fun romantic comedy, with Ryoo making likably nerdy, put-upon lead who matches up surprisingly well with Koh Joon-hee's Yoo-min, and they keep that up once the horror elements start to pop up. Eventually, though, their story gets subsumed in the larger disaster, and their return isn't quite as satisfying as their introduction, though it does have a few nice moments.

Kim Jee-woon takes the range for "A Heavenly Creature". Here, Universal Robotics technician Park Do-won (Kim Kang-woo) is summoned to a Buddhist monastery where, completely without explanation, guide robot RU-4 (voice of Park Hae-il) has apparently achieved not just sentience, but enlightenment. Do-won runs diagnostics, and while the situation sends the firm's president (Song Young-chang) into a panic, Bodhivista Hye-joo (Kim Gyu-ri) argues passionately on behalf of the machine that the monks now call In-myoung.

This is not exactly the sort of thing one expects from Kim Jee-woon, but he invests a great deal of passion in the piece and while it is, without a doubt, a movie in which characters passionately shout conflicting bits of philosophy at each other, director Kim keeps it from feeling arcane. The arguments that Kang and Hye-joo make are presented as both having a sound base, with Do-won both reasonable and flustered as the person caught in between. Kim Kang-woo, Kim Gyu-ri, and Song Young-chang (the first two especially, as Song doesn't appear until later on) make their characters more than mouthpieces, and the filmmaker gives them a believable world to inhabit - new and broken-in robots are in their right places, with changes just ubiquitous enough to indicate the future while still feeling very familiar. Kim's screenplay is also clever in how it contrasts the enlightened "In-Myoung" and how Do-won initially has trouble dealing with a task outside of specific bounds and procedures.

After that weighty bit, "Happy Birthday" is certainly a different finish. It opens with ten-year-old Park Min-seo (Jin Ji-hee) panicked at having lost her billiards-loving father's 8-ball, a matter likely to seem trivial a couple years later when a 10km-wide asteroid is on a collision course with the Earth. Min-seo, her parents (Lee Seung-jun & Yoon Se-ah), and her uncle Hu-an (Song Sae-byeok) are able to escape into an underground shelter, but what awaits the grown Min-seo (Bae Doo-na) when she must go outside when supplies run out on her eighteenth birthday.

Although Yim Pil-Sung plays with some serious themes here - the exaggerated guilt a child feels when her family is not getting along, for instance - "Happy Birthday" is most effective as a wonderfully absurd black comedy, one whose most delightfully strange twist will likely be given away in posters and trailers because it is both just that goofy and striking visually. Still, even if that is spoiled, the rest of the short should work - Jin Ji-hee is pretty great as a kid who worries frantically with the rest of the cast doing fast-paced bickering that may be a little broad but fits in with the way the rest of the world is heightened. Some of the best bits, though, come from the news coverage of the impending extinction event, with Ryu Seung-soo and Lee Young-eun (whom I think are both actual newscasters) bouncing between catatonia, recrimination, too-smooth professionalism, with John Kim as a somewhat bemused former NASA engineer providing expert commentary that becomes more deadpan and confused as the situation gets stranger. It is flat-out funny; I'd take it alone as a short film over most feature-length comedies.

It lets the film end on a funny, off-beat note, making "Doomsday Book" quite the successful anthology overall. Even the weakest leg has a lot going for it, and what comes after makes sure that the audience will be taking the best bits home with them.

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originally posted: 08/23/12 09:46:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2012 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2012 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ji-woon Kim
  Pil-Sung Yim

Written by
  Ji-woon Kim
  Pil-Sung Yim

  Seung-Beom Ryoo
  Hoon-Hee Ko
  Kang-woo Kim
  Guy-ri Kim
  Ji-Hee Jin
  Du-na Bae

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