The South Korean sci-fi anthology “Doomsday Book” is exciting for the talent behind the camera audacious in its trio of concepts, and disappointing for about two thirds of its running time. But that’s the way it is with anthologies–you take the good with the bad (in this case, there’s just more of the former than the latter). Still, even though two of the segments could charitably be described as half-baked, the middle entry is so well-realized, that it almost makes up for the rest of the lackluster experience.
The first segment is “A Brave New World,” a zombie apocalypse riff by director Im Pil-sung (his family name is spelled “Yim” in the program notes and “Im” in the movie’s titles). And while my instinct is to instantly check out at the mention of the zed word, Im comes up with a clever origin for the plague via tainted meat and some misplaced compostables. The series of unforeseen events that lead nerdy military scientist Seok-woo and much of South Korea to become shambling, flesh-eating monsters reminds me of the the opening of one of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” novels where hero Arthur Dent staves off a planetary pandemic by getting into some bad snacks. Except in reverse, I guess.
Anyway, Im’s concept is just that: all concept. After the zombie apocalypse seems to just strike his nation, the director presents us with lots of television panels worrying that it’s caused by anything from bad meat to North Korean biological weapons, to divine retribution. Curiously, the short ends with a quote from Genesis and it’s hard to tell specifically what God’s warning about the apple refers to in this particular case.
Director Kim Jee-woon is responsible for the second segment, “The Heavenly Creature” which is almost perfect save for what feels like a misplaced moment of ambiguity at the end.
This late 21st century segment focuses on service android In-myung, who is a guide robot for a Buddhist temple. In-myung experiences a flash of enlightenment and the monks, not knowing how to handle this burst of sentience by the machine call in a rep from the global robotics manufacturer UR. I won’t spoil the unexpected and beautiful turn that happens when this robot finds philosophy and spiritual insight, but it says a lot about the monks that they respect him as their brother and a little more still about the curious places where we’ll find faith.
Kim, who directed the super stylish gangster thriller “A Bittersweet Life” followed by the tense haunted house story “A Tale of Two Sisters” shows that he’s able to jump easily between genres and find an emotional beat that gives the lovely visuals a reason to exist. The creaky automaton at the center of the story is given a sad, gentle patience and beauty, thanks to Kim’s work (along with the special effects team) and they truly give life and soul to the lifeless and soulless.
The final segment is a joint effort between Im and Kim, “Happy Birthday” which concerns a missing 8-ball, a falling meteor, and a mistaken online catalog order. This one really just feels like the setup for the silly visual gag in the final scene, and of the three feels the most slight in terms of both story and content. With the exception of a series of running segments involving a pair of news anchors airing their dirty laundry hours before an extinction level event, there’s not much going on with “Happy Birthday.”