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FF2012: 'Doomsday Book'

Two bangs, one whimper on Fantastic Fest apocalypse anthology

By Richard Whittaker, 1:27PM, Sat. Sep. 22, 2012


'Heaven's Creation' lifts new anthology 'Doomsday Book' to the stars at Fantastic Fest

When the world ends, it seems likely that at least one film maker will have predicted how it happens. With Korean anthology Doomsday Book, we can add infected apple, Magic 8-Ball, and a new twist on the self-aware robot to the list.

Originally conceived as a project shared by Kim Jee-Woon (The Good, The Bad And the Weird, I Saw The Devil), Yim Pil-Siung (Hansel & Gretel) and Han Jae-Rim (The Show Must Go On), it entered limbo when Jae-Rim couldn't get his segment to work. Now it's revived, with Jee-Woon and Pil-Siung telling a tale each, then sharing duties on the third story.

OK, the honest truth is that you'll have to sit through opening chapter 'Brave New World', Pil-sung's diversion into the zombie franchise. It's not bad, but it is by far the weakest and most prosaic part of the films. I don't subscribe to the theory that we're burned out on zombies, but you've still got to give people a good reason to sit through your story. Sadly, Pil-sung doesn't really provide it. The metaphor of the undead as environmental catastrophe is a well-worn one, but this doesn't add anything.

Any problems with the film as a whole are overshadowed by the wondrous 'Heaven's Creation.' Kang-woo Kim plays a robotics engineer sent to a Buddhist temple to examine a machine that has become more than self-aware. It has reached Enlightenment.

This is as much of a slap in the intellectual face as Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel. Asimov, after all, was trying to filter the quandaries of mechanical life through Western philosophy, and the test there is self-awareness. 'Heaven's Creation' asks what the Buddha-nature means to an intellect that does not suffer from the barriers to Enlightenment – no greed, no attachment to the corporeal, no desires. There's no Terminator-style plasma-firing action, but instead a brilliant, insightful and emotionally-loaded discussion. And it is god-damn brilliant. It's not just because it is an extraordinary treatise on the nature of being, done with drama and tenderness. It's because it rewrites the movie's core concept: Yes, it's the end of the world, but because a new one – a new paradigm – is being born.

It was so good it took me a little while to switch gears for 'Happy Birthday.' Very lightly based on O. Henry's Gift of the Magi, it is a mixed bag. A small child (Jin Ji-hee) triggers an unlikely apocalypse that involves a comet and her goofy family getting locked in a home-made bomb shelter. It has a quirky, charming humor, which papers ably over some really lumpy story telling. Maybe it was me wiping the tears away after the touching end of 'Heaven's Creation', but the first five minutes seem like a skit choreographed by Rube Goldberg more than an opening scene. But once the domestic screwball comedy – a seeming mainstay of Korean genre films – kicks in, the family energy tides it over. There's even time for some hilarious media briefings on the countdown to extinction, which could have been boosted out to make a fourth chapter of their own.

Fantastic Fest presents Doomsday Book, D: Kim Jee-Woon, Yim Pil-sung, 115 mins. Wednesday, Sept. 26, 11:45pm; Thursday, Sept. 27, 6.20pm.

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