End of the world movies are often hysterical, nonsensical spectacles of the kind Roland Emmerich has lately made his stock in trade but this Korean science fiction anthology takes a more measured, thought-provoking approach, all the more remarkable given two of the stories are quirky comedies. Pil-Sung Yim, director of the outstanding, lyrical horror film Hansel and Gretel (2007), tackles the first story, “A Brave New World” wherein geeky Seuk-Woo (Ryu Seong-beom) is left home alone when his indifferent family go on holiday. His lax attitude to domestic hygene soon clutters the apartment with piles of rotten food that he dumps in the garbage. Whereupon a freak bio-chemical reaction spawns a mutant fungus that gets into the food chain eaten by cows that are then consumed by humans including Seuk-Woo himself dining out with his beloved girlfriend Yoo-min (Ko Jun-hee). The infected become rabid zombies driven to mindless acts of sex and violence that spread across Korea while the national media track the government's inept attempts to stop the virus.
Laden with reoccurring images of tainted apples, this is a twisted take on the story of Adam and Eve complete with a closing quote from the Book of Genesis although the precise intent behind the Biblical analogies is none too clear. Yim appears to be satirizing both the political and media responses towards the various epidemics that plagued Asia in recent years, e.g. SARS, bird flu, mad cow disease. Spoof news reports where various analysts, pundits and political spokesmen go bonkers on live television are intercut with documentary footage detailing actual botched government attempts to deal with past health scares. Well acted and visually audacious as only Korean cinema has been of late, this has a steady rate of amusing gags but as satire proves somewhat parochial. The storyline is unfocused but Yim handles the descent from goofy comedy into apocalyptic horror with great skill and by placing a sweet love story at the centre of all that zombie mayhem ends things on a disarmingly affecting note.
Very different in tone, the second story “The Heavenly Creature” is written and directed by Kim Ji-woon, the acclaimed filmmaker behind A Bittersweet Life (2005), The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) and I Saw the Devil (2010). Robotics technician Park Do-won (Kim Kang-woo) arrives at a Buddhist monastery following reports that the robot helper assisting the local monks is behaving strangely. To Park's horror it appears In-Myung (voiced by Park Hae-il) has become a devout Buddhist and having supposedly attained enlightenment is now venerated by fellow monks as the reincarnation of Buddha! What follows is an intense philosophical debate challenging Park's prejudices about robots being nothing more than mindless machines in the service of mankind. Though the plot brings to mind the robot stories of science fiction author Isaac Asimov its themes actually run a lot closer to the work of pioneering manga and anime auteur Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy (1963). Tezuka's Buddhist-Shinoist beliefs combined with his scientific background lead him to refute Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics and conclude an artificial intelligence would inevitably develop a soul. While In-Myung comes to believe he carries within himself an important message of worth to all of humanity, his manufacturers regard him as merely defective or at worst an insidious threat.
The story is oddly reactionary in its attitude towards science, compared with its benevolent depiction of religion, given the very scientists that created In-Myung are entirely intent on destroying him, an irony not lost on the monks. Nevertheless, Kim Ji-woon poses some intriguing questions notably whether man manipulates technology or technology manipulates man? Slow-paced yet handsomely crafted it builds to an affecting and thought-provoking conclusion.
Finally, Pil-Sung Yim returns with “Happy Birthday”, a particularly bizarre but amusing tale where an enormous asteroid is about to destroy the Earth. Precocious youngster Min-seo (Jin Ji-hee) retreats to an underground bunker along with her father (Lee Seung-joon), mother (Yoon Se Ah) and kooky scientist uncle (Song Sae-Byeok) only gradually realises the global panic is the result of her messing around with the latter's computer. It is a return to the broad humour and media satire of the first story. Gleeful info-mercials advertise cryogenic suspense units while a news anchor struggles to stay in control of a live broadcast while his female co-host crumbles into despair and the perky weather girl tries to sieze the spotlight. Yim throws black holes, UFOs, string theory, Stephen Hawking and a gigantic snooker ball (?) into a quirky farce that frankly doesn't make a whole lot of sense. However, superlative performances from an outstanding cast heading by the gifted Jin Ji-hee coupled with some very funny gags, result in an amusing, surprisingly heart-wrenching experience. It also ends on a gag reference to Galaxy Express 999 (1979) likely to befuddle non-anime fans.