Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Save the Green Planet! (Korea, 2003)

Save the Green Planet! — or, in Korean, Jigureul jikyeora! — is a Korean genre-bender from 2003 that was originally met with both good critiques and a number of awards (in Rotterdam, Moscow, Buenos Aires and Brussels, among other places). When the debut film of director Joon-Hwan Jang finally got an English-language release, however, it pretty much nose-dived straight into obscurity. In Europe, it went straight to DVD and has done little other than gather dust on shelves since then. A fate not at all surprising, for Save the Green Planet! is one of those rare films that defies all expectations by simply flying in the face of all of expectations. Is it a comedy? Science fiction? A horror flick? A thriller or detective movie? Some sort of social critique? It is, in the end, an original, off the wall, painful and continually surprising mix of all those genres; and as such, it is truly a movie with cojones as big as basketballs — and what it has, it knows how to use.
The plot is as convoluted as it is simple, and for the sake of keeping the film’s many twists and turns and oddball and terrifying developments a surprise for the viewer, not too much of it should be revealed. In short, Lee Byeong-gu, a man whose life has been shaped by tragedy, is convinced that aliens are not only coming to destroy earth — the titular green planet to be saved — but that Kang Man-shik, the head and founder of an unscrupulous chemical corporation, is an alien spy. With the assistance of his dim and chubby circus-performer girlfriend Su-ni (Jeong-min Hwang of Black House [2007 / trailer] in a role modeled lightly after that of Gelsomina in La strada [1954 / trailer]), Lee Byeong-gu kidnaps Kang Man-shik and locks Kang up in the basement of his mountain retreat in an attempt to learn all about Kang’s "royal genetic DNA code" before the next full moon, the date of the invasion. As he and Kang play a game of physical and psychological torture, disgraced Inspector Choo (Jae-yong Lee) and the young policeman Kim (Ju-hyeon Lee) slowly hone in on the mountain hideaway...
Sound simple? It is — and isn’t. The bare-bone description reveals the basic strand of the plot, but fails to do justice to the unexpected layers and crazed intricacies added to the gossamer thread. Indeed, Save the Green Planet! is one of those films that continually reveals new but relevant asides during every repeat viewing, even as it at the same time manages to reveal enough in one viewing to reach its macabre and inane but perhaps indivertibly logical ending.
For a first-time director, Joon-Hwan Jang has a fine eye not only for setting up and filming scenes, but his control of his actors is top notch. Ha-kyun Shin (as Lee Byeong-gu, the possibly not-nutty nutcase) and Yun-shik Baek (as Kang Man-shik, the kidnapped businessman) excel in their roles, both doing an incredible balancing act with their characters, thus causing the viewer's sympathies to move back and forth between the two characters at any given time as the given man oscillates from being a psycho to tragic loser or from being an asshole businessman to man desperate to survive.
Not that the opening kidnapping scene of Save the Green Planet! indicates that either of the two actors would do much with their parts, or that the direction would be any good, for it is perhaps the worst scene in the movie, indicating a possible eventual descent into third-rate burlesque comedy so common of so much Asian cinema (see the Japanese film Hiruko the Goblin [1991 / trailer] or the Chinese film A Terra-Cotta Warrior [1990 / trailer] for two films that are literally ruined by their Three-Stooges-like "humor"). Luckily, as much as the film retains an odd and wry humor even in its many blackest moments — and the film does indeed have a lot of truly black moments — Save the Green Planet! quickly leaves burlesque far behind in favor of a humor far less easy to describe....
Those who like their films pasteurized are probably going to find Save the Green Planet! as annoying as those who like their genre films straight up with no rocks, olives, cherries or twists. This flick is a cocktail, a cocktail with a mixture that tastes different with every sip and ends with an odd love-it or hate-it aftertaste — although it may take days before you decide which way you yourself go. But no matter whether you end up loving it or hating it, you’ll have to admit Save the Green Planet! is truly something original and different — and that alone makes it a rarity worth watching.

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