“I sometimes feel as if movies from all over the world have melted inside me.”–Joon-Hwan Jang
DIRECTED BY: Joon-Hwan Jang
FEATURING: Ha-kyun Shin, Yun-shik Baek, Jae-yong Lee, Jeong-min Hwang
PLOT: Aided by Sooni, a lovelorn acrobat, Byung-goo abducts Kang, a pharmaceutical company executive, believing him to be a high-ranking agent of a group of aliens from Andromeda bent on eradicating the earth. As a pair of detectives close in on Byung-goo, the delusional man tortures the businessman in the basement of his remote cabin, hoping to force him to use his “royal DNA” to contact the prince of the Andromeda galaxy. Kang escapes but is recaptured and hobbled, and begins to play a psychological game with his tormentor, pretending to cooperate to avoid further injury.
- Jang says the scenario for Save the Green Planet! was inspired by an Internet post suggesting was an alien in combination with his fondness for (and dissatisfaction with) Stephen King’s Misery.
- This was Joon-Hwan Jang’s debut feature. He has made two movies since, a crime feature and a historical drama, neither of have shown significant weirdness or drawn many eyeballs outside of South Korea.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Byung-goo’s homemade alien hazmat suit: a trash bag poncho with a modified miner’s helmet rigged with blinking gizmos (including a rear view mirror that bobbles up and down) of uncertain purpose and utility. The first time you see him outfitted in this garb, you know exactly who you’re dealing with.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: One bullet, one bee; ghost mom with meth; aliens did kill the dinosaurs
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The first two thirds are a demented genre mashup of sci-fi, comedy, horror, thriller, and action elements whose rambunctiousness is aimed squarely at midnight movie audiences. But it’s the final act, which shifts to an even madder perspective and goes so far as to outright steal scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—while still managing to feel original—that puts it over the top.
English-language trailer for Save the Green Planet!
COMMENTS: Despite a sometimes (and sometimes not) predictable plot, the briskly paced, action packed, and occasionally WTF?-laden Save the Green Planet! explodes on screen to earn its exclamation point. It’s anchored by effective performances from a goofy-yet-dangerous Ha-kyun Shin and an arrogant-even-in-captivity Yun-shik Baek, whose cat and mouse games keep the adrenaline running high until the movie reaches the apocalyptic finale its been secretly aiming at all along.
In the early reels, at least, it’s the film’s maniacal juggling of styles, genres and moods that makes the biggest impression. After laying out a (questionable) science fiction premise, it takes off as a wacky comedy, quickly turns into a gruesome torture fest, and becomes a taut thriller when Kang sees a chance to escape, all while taking time out for a fantasy kung fu scene. If Green Planet is grounded in any one tone, it’s comedy: not because you’ll be constantly laughing, but because the absurdity of the entire situation suggests we shouldn’t take it 100% seriously. The repeated use of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—which first shows up in the opening credits in an amped-up punk version—takes us further into fantasy, reminding us of dream reality. The song’s second appearance encapsulates Green Planet‘s alchemy of horror, black comedy, and pathos. Distraught and intent on leaving Byung-goo, Sooni remembers the happiness the couple shared in a tender montage. Byung-goo applies a mentholated rub to Kang’s eye. The camera focuses tight on his screaming mouth as the Streisandian singer belts out “that’s where you’ll find me!” Good times, indeed; enough to bring a tear to your eye.
For all its good points, chief among them an energy that seldom lags, Green Planet does have a couple of issues that keep it from entering the very top ranks of cult films. The script often telegraphs its destination; you should stay well ahead of it most of the time. The brutal torture scenes, which involve electricity, grievous bodily harm, and a wicked anal probe, seem ripped from a torture porn feature, and are hard to reconcile with the otherwise lighthearted mood. (In the extra features, a female crew member asks Jang if he ever thought of toning down the violence so it would be less off-putting for audiences. He responds “I did tone it down for that reason.”) The climax is also a bit of a letdown; after the film rededicates itself to its science fiction scenario and introduces intriguing new ideas, Byung-goo and Kang’s final showdown plays out as just another action movie finale. The sequence is well-choreographed and would be welcome in another film, but here the psychological warfare between the two has proven much more satisfying than fisticuffs, and a dialogue-based confrontation would have been more cathartic. To its credit, however, the coda offers an additional surprise that somewhat redeems the otherwise rote ending. Still, the lack of a clear tonal focus makes Green Planet seem more frivolous than it was intended to be.
Even though it’s not a thoroughly surreal movie, Green Planet empathizes enough with its bonkers protagonist to earn its weird stripes. Byung-goo’s view of reality is as twisted as you’d expect from a guy who considers it his life’s mission to torture aliens in the name of saving the planet. His paranoia is exacerbated by the fact that he’s taking “Intenz,” a powerful prescription amphetamine. In the last third of the movie, Byung-goo appears to have a psychotic break—at least, a forest of green alien hands reach out and draw him into a psychedelic dimension where the ghost of his mom drops Intenz pills into his open mouth, which probably is not meant to be taken literally. That’s when things start to get really strange. We see Byung-goo’s theory of the universe laid out, including the eradication of the dinosaurs by flying saucers, the extraterrestrial explanations behind Adam and Eve, the tower of Babel, and Noah, and a Korean reenactment of 2001, complete with monoliths. (Not only does Jang plunder‘s film, but he also kind of steals a scene from The Usual Suspects, too). This breathless montage is the high point of the film, the moment where it seems to be explaining absolutely everything and going extremely insane at exactly the same time.
Green Planet‘s ultimate theme is that humans are fundamentally disposed to self-defeating violence, and that this flaw makes our existence hard to justify, in a cosmic sense. Whether it’s due to experimental genes implanted by aliens or just an accident of nature, it’s hard to argue against the thesis. The irony of Byung-goo resorting to torture as his instinctual first move to save the planet is no accident. In a movie with a raft of Old Testament references, Byung-goo is the Job figure: his backstory slowly reveals enough tragedy and bullying to explain (if not justify) his cruelty. But, being a real human rather than an ideal one, our madman wasn’t created to suffer patiently, even though that choice would have resulted in a happier ending for him. He fights back with the desperation of a cornered animal, lashing out in ways that only sink him further into his quagmire. Is the Green Planet worth saving, if this is our savior? Maybe not. But, despite our lack of merit, the wistful closing credits focus on the beauty of human life. We can only hope that if the alien races out there have their rayguns pointed at our planet, they’ll take a New Testament tack and decide to spare us, even though we don’t deserve it.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Though certainly not to everyone’s tastes, this looney-tunes pic about a deranged serial killer who thinks he’s helping Earth by killing off supposed aliens works on a variety of levels, from gruesome slapstick comedy through social critique to genuinely chilling Grand Guignol… [Jang] ransacks a lot of stylistic larders here, from Jeunet & Caro’s grotesque fantasies, through Japanese directors like Shinya Tsukamoto (‘Tetsuo’) and Takashi Miike, to Korean helmer Park Chan-wook’s much more controlled but equally black and obsessive ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.'”–Derek Elley, Variety (contemporaneous)
“Korean cinema loses its marbles in Save the Green Planet, a thoroughly surreal alien invasion movie that makes the high-octane frenzy of Mars Attacks seem as stuffy and pompous as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.”–Jamie Russell, BBC (contemporaneous)
“All the furiousness doesn’t really add up to anything, but there is grungy fun to be had in gizmo-laden art direction and the increasingly bizarre battle of wits of the weirdly warped South Korean sci-fi black comedy.”–Sean Axmaker, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Save the Green Planet! (2003)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Leo DiCaprio: Alien Seductor? So Says Director Jang Jun-Hwan. – brief profile/review from Chuck Stephens of The Village Voice
Save the Green Planet – Asian Wiki – includes a small gallery of stills
HOME VIDEO INFO: Koch Lorber acquired the film and put out a DVD (buy) in 2005, soon after Green Planet‘s brief U.S. theatrical run ended. It’s a memorable artifact from the height of the DVD craze, when extra features were standard even on smaller releases. Here we get fifteen minutes of deleted scenes (including one that were storyboarded but not shot), with the director explaining the reason each was cut; a five-minute interview with the mild-mannered director as he shows us his apartment and its various Green Planet-related knickknacks; a “making of” featurette with fourteen minutes of interviews with cast and crew; twelve minutes of behind-the-scenes footage; a ten minute conversation between the director and actors; a music video; and Korean and English versions of the trailer. Planet fanatics should be thrilled.
Green Planet has never been released on Blu-ray and, at the time of this writing, is not available streaming or on-demand., either. If I had to guess a reason for its unavailability, it would be music clearance rights, often a culprit in cases like this.
(This movie was nominated for review by Mike Watkins. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)