Tuesday, February 21, 2012

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

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

Genre-blending is a very prevalent technique in Korean cinema, the main reasons for this being economies of scale.  The larger a demography you can appeal to, the more likely you are to boost your attendance and therefore revenue streams.  But even in an industry replete with generic hybrids, Save the Green Planet takes the cake.  Korean filmmakers are so good at this technique that they have come close, as I have claimed before, to transcending generic labeling altogether.  Why does a film necessarily need to have labels ascribed to it?  Plenty of reasons, to make them more readily identifiable or targetable for instance, but I appreciate the freedom afforded by splicing so many conventions into long-form that our generic radars become obfuscated and thus we can be surprised again, another rarity in today’s cinema.  Not all appreciate this technique it must be said, even the immensely successful and popular The Host (2006), which is similarly poly-generic, has more than its fair share of detractors, who chiefly cite the film’s failure to settle on any distinct path.  I, for one, disagree with these people:  In my mind such a view is a product of complacency, comfort, and knowing what to expect.  It is also a way to control what we see, as though we can exercise some form of hegemony over what we watch, but that is a discussion for another day.

What I love about Save the Green Planet is its boundless energy and unchecked ambition.  It must be said that not everything works, to be honest, for some viewers maybe very little works, but rookie director Jang Joon-hwan doesn’t seem to have worried too much about what stuck and what didn’t, he was just having too much fun with the material (which he wrote) to worry about being measured or diplomatic.  The end work reflects this style as Jang’s filmmaking exuberance is infectious and the fun transmits directly to the viewer.  There’s no question that we share in his experience of having made this film.  The danger of course is that Jang’s film may have been a flash in the pan, it’s been eight years already and he has yet to tackle a sophomore feature though he did participate in 2010’s omnibus Camelia which I haven’t seen but have not read any great notices for.  More than anything, these days he’s know as successful actress Moon So-ri’s (Oasis, 2002) husband.

Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun) believes in aliens, not only that but he believes that they are planning to destroy the planet and that he is the man to stop them.  Armed with pepper spray, a helmet and garbage bag garb to block alien brain waves, and his unwavering purpose, he and his tightrope walking girlfriend kidnap Man-shik, the CEO of a major corporation.  Byeong-gu believes that Man-shik (Baek Yoon-shik) is an alien and is determined to extract information from him in his isolated hillside lair in Kangwon province.

Essentially the film is a B-movie that splices in many cultish and violent elements to mount a frenzied and anarchic narrative.  For much of the film this is what Jang achieves but he does so with much more care and skill than we expect from other films of the same ilk.  The film immediately opens up with comedy and sci-fi before quickly moving on to what is tantamount to horror and torture porn.  Soon Jang throws in some procedural elements as the hunt is on for Man-shik’s abductor.  However it is at the two-thirds point that the film truly shows us what it is.  Its scope, which was already substantial, takes on voluminous proportions as we are filled in on Byeong-gu’s backstory and his connection to Man-shik, not to mention what may be behind his paranoia.


Like many a Korean film before it and just as many that followed, Save the Green Planet delves into its protagonist’s past and weaves the narrative threads together with melodrama.  Seemingly a tough proposition, this actually works remarkably well in the form of a well-edited montage, aided by a moving and lush string theme led by a melancholy cello.  If this weren’t enough our quick journey through Byeong-gu’s life serves as a searing indictment of society and authority in recent Korean history.  Suddenly what seemed like a curious oddity, albeit an exhilarating one, is infused with purpose.  But Save the Green Planet is an especially special kind of film so woe betide it to stop just there as Jang punches into high gear with a big leap up to the macro level.

When Man-shik finally confesses his origin a new montage unfurls which hurtles us through an alternate history of our entire civilization.  It’s a witty and crafty story but it too hides an ace up its sleeve as Man-shik recounts the atrocities of human civilizations, accompanied with footage of some of our unbecoming history’s most infamous acts of iniquity.  Jang is lamenting the violent gene inherent in our species but it’s a double-edged sword as he fully recognizes and embraces its existence in his own DNA, as evidenced by the violent nature of his film.


It should be a priority for anyone serious about Korean cinema or indeed cinema in general to take the time to watch this film.  Easily one of the most innovative works made in the last ten years, Save the Green Planet is a veritable tour-de-force that almost redefines the purpose and possibility of cinema.  Out of the many trips I’ve taken to the theater, which stretch well past a thousand, the midnight screening of Jang’s film is still my fondest silver screen experience.

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