Monday, February 20, 2012

Save the Green Planet (2003) and My Discovery of Korean Cinema - Part I

Originally posted on New Korean Cinema on January 24th, 2012

Once upon a time during a cold, wet winter’s night, my tattered shoes leaking, I trod the murky streets of Dublin for an hour on a rainy Saturday night.  At the time I had only just moved to the Emerald city and though I knew many people in town I rarely fraternized with anyone on the weekends.  It wouldn’t take long for this to change but it didn’t really make me feel lonely, in fact I felt liberated.  After six years of boarding school a few miles up the Liffey River and fifteen of holidays and odds and ends locked away in a remote village in the xenophobic Swiss Alps, my wet feet and permeable clothing didn’t bother me as much as they might have.  The best part of my newfound freedom was that I could go to the cinema however often I pleased, better still was my unlimited membership to the local UGC cinema.  For a few quid a month I could indulge in a wealth of cinema spread across seventeen screens.  My weekends were spent living in the theater and I would often watch four or five movies on the trot.

On this particular Saturday night near the end of 2004 I caught a late show at around ten o’clock but I can’t for the life of me remember what I saw.  But what I’ll never forget is what I watched next.  In those days while the distribution company Tartan was still solvent, they used to stage an ‘Asia Extreme’ roadshow which, according to Film Cut, “toured then UGC cinemas (now Cineworld Cinemas) around the UK with the programme of films that Tartan considers to be the most daring examples of ‘extreme cinema’.”  I had seen a funny-looking poster of a grinning man wearing a garbage bag while riding planet Earth and I decided to watch this film based solely on the fact that it was Korean.  Back then I had only dabbled in Korean films but what I had seen had left a strong impression on me.

My first introduction to Asian cinema came when I was researching some versions of Macbeth I could watch for my English class in secondary school.  Having already got my hands on Orson Welles’ and Roman Polanski’s versions I dug a little deeper and heard about an old Japanese film called Throne of Blood (1956) by some guy called Akira Kurosawa.  The title seemed a little silly to me but I’d heard it was quite good so I tracked down a BFI copy on Amazon and popped it in the player.  I think it’s fair to say that the axis of my life shifted somewhat that day.  Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare was brilliant, it was magnificent, it was mesmerizing, and I was in awe.  Completely forgetting about my English class I delved headfirst into Japanese cinema and I rarely came up for air for months.

A while later I was browsing through the Asian film section of my local FNAC (a French media retailer) in Switzerland when I came across a really nifty deluxe, embossed, double-DVD package.  It was green, there was some shiny blood on the cover, it looked kind of out there, and it had a really cool name so I picked it up thinking it might be somewhat akin to a Takashi Miike film, whose catalogue I was raging through at the time.  The film was Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and it was nothing like all the Japanese films I had seen because of course it was Korean, but I hated it.  It was unremittingly bleak and gratuitously violent, which I was no stranger to, but in a manner that was so downbeat and realistic that I was traumatized by it for a week, until I was compelled to watch it again.  During the second go-round, once again my axis shifted ever so slightly.  I was beguiled and repulsed at the same time, anger and sadness coursed through me but it was not my own.  Though I would not know it for a while, I had stumbled upon ‘han’, the melancholy which permeates so many of the very best Korean films.  For the time being I was electrified and I needed more, so back to the shelves of FNAC I went.  This time I came back with a double bill of Peppermint Candy (1999) and The Isle (2000).  The former taught me infinitely more about Korea than I had ever known and the latter shocked and impressed me.  This introductory triptych of Korean film already had me drawing parallels and marveling at how an emerging national cinema could be so fresh, self-aware, and successful.

It was this feeling that led me into the theater that was exhibiting a midnight séance of Save the Green Planet (2003), despite the tacky poster.  I was the first person there so I had my choice of seating, as I always do I opted for dead centre in the middle row.  As it turned out I was the only person who came in for this screening but that was fine by me.  I had no expectations for the film and I certainly didn’t think it could match any of the three Korean works I had already seen but then the projector started rolling.

It’s a funny thing to be surprised these days, more and more we are trained to expect things.  We witness events and minutiae unfold in an infinite cycle of cause and effect.  When we walk into a theater we are loaded to the gills with expectations.  In the grand scheme of things there is actually very little that we don’t know regarding what we are about to see.  We know it’s a film, we assume there will be images projected on screen and that some combination of dialogue, music, and foley sound will blare out from the sound system.  We’re fairly certain that there will be people, a story, relationships, props, locations, and much, much more.  All that even before the media barrage that we are relentlessly subjected to in the digital era.  We may know the actors, the director, the writer, the genre, the plot summary, or the country of origin.  We may have seen the poster, the trailer, clips, seen reviews, or even read the book that the film is based on.  Every so often I like to walk into a film with zero expectations, besides those very first ones I’ve listed, but increasingly it’s become very difficult to do this.  Given how much I read online about films I can’t really stroll into a multiplex and not know something about every film on the marquee.  The best place to do this is film festivals, even the most well-informed and up-to-date cinephile is not privy to information regarding absolutely every film on a reputable international event’s program.

On this occasion I was at a multiplex but the Tartan ‘Asia Extreme’ roadshow served as a kind of mini festival and in any case I was not familiar with a number of the films, including Save the Green Planet.  The only things I knew about it were that it was Korean and that it looked weird, after a few minutes I also ascertained that Shin Ha-kyun was in it, as I knew him from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.  But before recognizing him, I was already hooked.

The opening montage, with a frenetic voiceover explaining a ludicrous theory about a businessman posing as an alien, was exuberant, wacky, and completely unexpected.  It was breathlessly paced, hilarious, and featured some strong mise-en-scene which included brilliant editing and an expertly placed swell in the score.  The hooks were in and I was ready for and thrilled to be on this ride.

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