Doomsday Book (2012)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 16th October, 2012

The production notes for Doomsday Book (or Inryu myeongmang bogoseo, or ‘Report on the Destruction of Mankind’), when referring to the movie’s central theme of Apocalypse, casually refer to “the inevitability of such a fate.” Pretty bleak, I thought, and darker did my reverie about fate go still, when I reflected that this three-story sci-fi anthology was supposed to be finished in 2006, but production problems stopped it from being completed until this apocalyptic year of 2012.

Of course there is some debate about whether the Mayans meant our world would end or whether it would just fundamentally change, and here it is so as well – in the main it’s more about existential crisis or uncomfortable evolutions than mass death. Anton Bitel, reviewing it in Eye for Film, has a more positive phrasing, calling it “concerned as much with renewal as with destruction.”

The first story, Jee-woon Kim’s Brave New World, shows a lazy man throw non-perishables into the foodstuff waste bin, which ends up warping the food supply and starting a grisly viral zombie plague. Starting with squirmy, intense point-of-view shots and an awkward comedy romance, this segment ends with an absurd gross-out Apocalyptic clusterfuck; there’s a bit of reference to Dawn of the Dead in the way the zombie hordes maraud through shopping malls or tap the shoulders of old friends, still sort of awkwardly re-enacting their human selves’ behaviours. This is the wildest of the three parts: not only is it about a city-wide rampage, it has incongruous moments of absurd comedy, like when devastated newscasters stop to stare into space, or one of their panel guests goes from Trostkyite ranting to playing hippie guitar.

The second chapter, Pil-Sum Yim’s Heavenly Creature, is the sober reprieve in the mix. Thought-provoking, visually striking and serenely paced, it mostly takes place in a Buddhist temple, where the robot RU-4 seems to have reached enlightenment, and is being praised as the Buddha. The machine’s manufacturers get wind of this, and decide it must be destroyed, leading to a dilemma of whether destroying this piece of artificial intelligence is getting rid of a machine or a living being. Doomsday Book therefore moves from a story of disease and destruction to one about consciousness coming from nothingness. If the first story had a Biblical nod in its recurring motif of an apple, there is a less explicit but more vibrant thematic reference to the Tree of Knowledge here: The robotics company wants to destroy the RU-4 because independent electronic thought is a threat to the foundation of human dominance of the planet. When humans are the Gods, we can understand why a deity might be afraid of His creations learning too much – you don’t want the reality you’ve built being unpicked. Heavenly Creature also has some interesting links with other films: the look of the robot is a reference to the character design in – perhaps a thumb in the nose to the intellectual failures of – films like Bicentennial Man and I, Robot. The design of some sets looks like a precursor to the second instalment of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (in the future, will we all live in little cubicles with TV screens for walls?)

Originally the third story was to be directed by Jae-rim Han and be a reworking of the O. Henry story The Gift of the Magi. As it turned out, Jae-woon Kim returned to direct a segment called Happy Birthday. This is the thinnest of them all, a comedy about a little girl who breaks her dad’s pool-ball, orders one from the internet and ends up starting a chain of events that will lead to a meteor destroying life on Earth. There really isn’t much to say about it. It’s kinda absurd, kinda overlong, has a few chuckles and only in the ending does it achieve any kind of thematic interest.

There is a logical progression across the three stories: disease shows the danger of nature, the robot the dilemmas of technology and the final chapter has technology and nature mixing together to the point where only mysticism can answer them. Still, Doomsday Book is uneven as an experience, let down by its third act, although overall it is quirky, intelligent fun. Even the look of the third story, compared to the rich grain structure of the previous 35mm entries, has a sickly RED-camera digital pall to it. I suppose as a story about things facing extinction or becoming fundamentally altered, there’s a certain appropriateness to that.