Doomsday Book had originally been conceived as a short film anthology consisting of three films, one of each being directed by Kim Ji-Woon, Yim Pil-Sung and Han Jae-Rim. However, shortly after Kim and Yim finished their own segments the project ran into a funding problem and Han’s segment, The Christmas Gift, which was to be a musical retelling of an O. Henry short story was never filmed. A few years later another investor came forward and the project could be completed, but rather than the planned film by Han, Kim and Yim decided to complete the project themselves with Yim taking up the primary directing role on the final piece of the film. Somewhat loosely the three films deal with different scenarios involve the end of the world, or really just the end of the world as we have always known it.
A Brave New World, directed by Yim and the first film, is the story of a geeky research scientist working out his military service in the relatively safe zone of a government lab. He still lives with his family who seem to take little notice of him other than treating him like a servant whose job it is to keep the place tidy. One day, they decide to go on holiday in the full knowledge that he won’t be able to go because of the army, and so they charge him with several household chores before they go. However, he crucially forgets one of them and discovers a strange rotten apple which ends up being deposited into a food recycling bin where (and I’m not sure if this is something people know is happening) it gets fed to cattle. The meat of these cattle then becomes infected and the zombie (well, they’re still ‘alive’ but definitely zombie like) apocalypse is born!
They may not be classical zombies but there’s still plenty of classical zombie style social commentary going on, where you have to ask yourself how much has really changed since the outbreak of the virus (or whatever it is). There’s also the interesting idea that maybe the zombies are the next stage of evolution - in a particularly funny moment our zombiefied hero ends up standing at the end of an ‘evolution of man’ diorama at a museum. It’s a funny and oddly romantic tale that walks a difficult tonal path with a surprising ease.
Heavenly Creature, directed by Kim, takes a much more serious tone than Yim’s slightly tongue in cheek "zombies destroy society" tale. Displaying the most tenuous link to the theme of Doomsday, Heavenly Creature is the story of a robot who, having been employed in a Buddhist temple, appears to have found enlightenment. The monks promptly call in an engineer to ascertain whether the robot is malfunctioning but the engineer can find nothing wrong with his software. The robot is, however, clearly operating outside of his programming and should therefore be terminated. The engineer’s confusion winds up calling in the company president himself who has a very clear idea what should happen next. The engineer and monks are not so certain.
This is the most serious of the three films - it’s much slower and more static than either of Yim’s films but the the themes it deals with are so much bigger. Like many of these stories it wants to examine the nature of humanity but also of spirituality and technology and the complicated relationship between all three. The company president believes that a robot achieving enlightenment would spell the end for man kind but the monks are prepared to recognise the robot as Buddha. It’s well done but perhaps some of the issues are dealt with a little simplistically and the constraints of the project perhaps exacerbate the bluntness of their presentation.
Finally we come to Happy Birthday; Yim’s closing segment is the most successful of the three and the only one that deals with the end of the world in the conventional sense. A small girl, having broken her father’s prize 8-ball, tries to order another one over the Internet but believes she’s been unsuccessful. That is until ten years later when a gigantic 8-ball comes hurtling through space on a direct course for their house, threatening to take the rest of the world out on its way down. Queue lots of panicking and theorising as the world counts down to doomsday - the TV panel discussions that descend into irrelevant partisan speeches, random folk singing and a glum looking TV presenter’s end of the world confession... not to mention the shopping channel’s attempt to sell various anti-apocalypse gear that seems as if it might actually bring the end of your world a little closer whilst appearing unfeasibly cheerful in the face of certain death.
The cheerful absurdity of the whole situation makes this the most fun of the three films. Watching everything spiral out of control as the media offers uninformed theories and comments from inappropriate pundits presented a realistic (though much funnier) prediction of how they would react to an actual extinction threat. However, the cultural differences here seemed to present the most problems. Although all the jokes still made sense in a wider context there was still the feeling that specific aspects of popular Korean culture were being parodied to which the non-native audience was obviously oblivious. It isn’t a big problem but there are undoubtedly things that will leave you scratching your head a little as you realise they’re funny but can’t quite place why.
Taken as a whole Doomsday Book is, like all anthology films, a little dissatisfying in the end. The three shorts here aren’t really connected in any meaningful way and might work better separately than together, but individually they all have something to offer. Kim’s effort is the most serious and ambitious but Yim’s two contributions are both fun and offer an absurd take on some popular end of the world scenarios. There’s nothing ground-breaking here or particularly original but its high production values and skilful direction make Doomsday Book an interesting prospect for fans of Asian Sci-fi.
Doomsday Book was screened at the 56th BFI London Film Festival in October 2012