56th BFI London Film Festival Review – Doomsday Book (2012)

Doomsday Book, 2012.

Written and Directed by Jee-woon Kim and Pil-Sung Yim.
Starring Doona Bae, Seung-beom Ryu, Sae-byuk Song, Kang-woo Kim, Joon-ho Bong and Ji-hee Jin.

SYNOPSIS:

Three short films, together making an anthology. One chapter concerns a young man who becomes a zombie. Another shows the anarchic and zany troubles a family run into at the end of the world. The other shows a robot’s evolution to the point it’s regarded as enlightened, much to the anger of the company that made it.

A story about zombies, from a zombie’s point of view. A story about a robot who might be Buddha. A story about the end of the world. Each enough to refill any Hollywood producers cocaine cupboards. Each high concept idea put in the hands of people who are proven storytellers and at the same time not from the Hollywood House. You can see why I might have had high hopes for Doomsday Book.

Ah, see, now you can see where I’m going, can’t you? Well just wait a second, I’ve got another reviewer cliché to throw out: if you can see where I’m going, you’ll definitely see where one of these short films is going.

Yes, we’ll start with the robot. Heaven’s Creation, set in the future (obviously), is about said robot evolving to the mental capacity where it/he has achieved enlightenment. The premise is a neat twist on sci-fi clichés. The robot who’s smarter than human beings and who evolves and learns by himself is a seemingly worn out story. But Heaven’s Creation takes it on a wholly philosophical turn.

Set in possibly the most interesting place for a robot who can learn, a monastery and its pupils see this robot as the most learned and a being who was enlightened since its ‘birth’. But you don’t have to be (wait for it) ENLIGHTENED to figure out where the plot’s going for this one. The themes (whether the robot is ‘it’ or ‘he’, whether the robot remains a tool or is a being in it’s own right) are presented as subtly as a baseball bat across the head being wielded by a giant robot that constantly screams ‘Love me!’, except instead of bellowing things the robot just stands there and tells you what the baseball bat means for humankind and why you should also love the baseball bat and why, even though it was built for other things, the bat can be used to twirl spaghetti or play music.

The plot goes in a predictable fashion. I have no fear in providing spoiler alerts because we’ve all seen the people who created the robot getting fearful or angry, then they try to stop the robot but the robot doesn’t want to and collisions both physical and metaphorical occur and it’s all very exciting. The ending is, theoretically, interesting but everything that happens before is too ponderous and slow that any attempted emotional link with the audience was unearned.

At the showing I attended, Heaven’s Creation came after The New Generation. The task of maintaining interest was, at least from my point of view, not met. The New Generation, with its zombie love story, running pace and satirical edge, was frankly let down by the plodding of Heaven’s Creation.

The New Generation quickly, like the rest of the movies, sets its premise and themes up and just goes from there. Where The New Generation got it right though, was that the themes weren’t heavy handed and were handled in a genuinely funny way.

Tainted meat makes its way into human mouths and turns everyone into zombies. Sounds like the set up to a lot of movies, both mid budget thrillers and lower budgeted fare. The fact they weren’t ever called zombies and the way the zombification was not just a metaphor, but at times completely set aside, was what made this movie hurdle the inherent problems with telling a story that’s been told so many times before.

The comedy was right on the mark, both in the writing and the delivery. Newsrooms not knowing what the hell to report and devolving into buzz words as the streets devolved into anarchy. The dad of a zombie who is bitten, falls to the floor and can only mutter a few worried words about his raided liquor cabinet. The zaniness of the humour meant pathos was harder and, in this movie’s case, near impossible to find. But it was still equally touching and funny to see the couple from the beginning meet again as zombies.

The symbolism, while not quite beating the audience round the head, was a little on the nose though, and the final message given out wasn’t exactly in keeping with the less sincere tone of the rest of the movie.

Zaniness was what I thought the name of the game was, considering The New Generation’s brand of humour. After the misfire of Heaven’s Creation, the humour returned with Happy Birthday.

Like The New Generation, Happy Birthday featured satirical newsrooms, this time showing what might happen if the world were about to end. With Monty Python-esque animation and humour, a simple asteroid isn’t all it seems. The twist is inspired in its wackiness, but the rest seems empty.

It’s unfortunately missing that something special that would make it stand out from the crowd. No matter how amusing the little gags are, the pacing’s too mixed. While the light way they deal with the relationships of the characters stops the tone from getting too… well, heavy, Happy Birthday felt a bit like a sketch that had gone on for too long.

The newsroom antics were also near identical to The Onion’s news network take, with the same characters (the reporter who won’t stop doing his job diligently, the reporter who breaks down, the reporter who’s a little flaky and who possibly doesn’t quite comprehend what’s happening), but without the right level of cynicism to take a real stab at media outlets. It was like someone who’d been told they were funny tried to do a sketch and could only flail around as I thought about the people who’d done this idea before and better.

All the movies look quite similar, which I only bring up to talk about the newsroom segments again. The sets look almost identical, and it would’ve helped to have more varying colour palettes throughout. The level of acting is a lot higher than the level of emotion, which is a shame, because the delivery and relationships established by the actors deserve a bit more than the tone and pacing gives them.

There’s a theory that coming up with an idea for a feature, then compressing the idea down to tell a simple story, can actually make a good, full movie that forces itself to not be bloated. This theory mostly doesn’t work with Doomsday Book. I almost feel sorry for The New Generation, as it works completely as a short movie. If only each movie matched it.

But they all, even the best of the three, need work in terms of tone and pacing.  Despite being relatively short, Happy Birthday and Heaven’s Creation outstay their welcome long before their respective ends. I mean, just as you think it’s all gonna end, it doesn’t. There’s something else to say. Another little snippet that isn’t needed. An extension that you just don’t need or want to take in. See how annoying that is?

In the end, Doomsday Book was too mixed. Pacing was all over the place. Mood changed at the drop of a hat, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. The emotion was too widely stretched out, ranging from wacky and zany antics of, frankly, cartoon characters to the other extreme of the spectrum when things get wholly sincere (I mean, c’mon, a fish out of water parody movie about a robot in a monastery is waiting to be made). At the end, I didn’t quite know what to think, but in a bad way. Everything sort of happened, but unfortunately the lack of focus was its undoing.

Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★

Matt Smith

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