Following her Talking Architect films, director Jeong Jae-eun once again explores the complicated systems behind Seoul’s urban planning, a field which encompasses both fascinating sociological insights and frustrating political obstacles. In Jeong’s hands, this exploration of the growth of Seoul’s residential planning is enthralling yet the journey is at times difficult through its detailed mid-section, especially for those not familiar with the city’s unique architectural landscape.
Beginning with Seoul’s aggressive housing development plans that began in the late 1960s, Ecology in Concrete interviews an array of city planners, architects, real estate agents and residents to give a picture of how one of the world’s largest cities, at the time of its quickest growth, attempted to deal with need for more and better housing. The film chronicles the grand plans for ideal cities that were marred by compromise and a breathless approach that glossed over details, and progresses until the present day, when one of the city’s oldest and largest apartment block jungles is about to be demolished.
The film opens in the Sewoon Shopping Mall, a kilometer-long eyesore that was built 50 years ago and has been greatly maligned ever since. Actress Kim Hye-na floats through the building, exploring its decaying spaces as the words of ‘Love of the Sewoon Shopping Mall’s Kid’, a volume of poetry by Yoo Ha (director of A Dirty Carnival among others), fill the soundtrack.
In this spellbinding sequence, Jeong conflates the awe and fear that exist within the breadth of Seoul’s explosive development. A vestige of modern Seoul, Sewoon, with its cracking walls, dusty halls and graceless boxiness, still lies at the very middle of the city, infecting it from its core.
From there, Jeong begins to interview Sohn Jung-mok, who was the head of city planning in Seoul during the 1970s, when he oversaw plans that saw gigantic self-contained residential parks sprout up all around the city. This includes the development of Yeoui-do, that went from being a massive island of grass in the Han River to a fully built-up city district within a few years. Sohn is an interesting subject, who has plenty of insight into Seoul’s breathless advance but is also honest about his role in the process.
After more characters are introduced and the subject turns to what happens to all this government housing when it’s time for redevelopment, the film becomes harder to follow. This midsection weighs itself down as it strives to explore the complicated municipal issues around government housing, the redistribution of land and all the legal and business wrangling those entail.
Once we pass through this section and connect with the residents living in one of these dying spaces today, though, Jeong puts the film back on track as it edges towards a strong finish that is melancholic, lyrical and a little terrifying. Ecology in Concrete explores one of the most fascinating aspects of modern Seoul with a delicate touch, that (for the most part) smoothly draws us into the details of the city’s housing yet is at its best when its otherworldly inclinations take over and allow us to explore the city’s mutable spaces.