SAVE THE GREEN PLANETNR
Ever since Park Chan-wook's Oldboy was unleashed upon unsuspecting Cannes audiences last May, South Korean cinema has officially become The Next Big Thing. In many ways, it now occupies the position Hong Kong movies held in the early '90s when directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark were talked about in hushed, reverent tones by critics and film buffs. Following on the heels of Spring, Summer. Fall, Winter...and Spring, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War and Park's twisted work of genius, Jang Jun-hwan's Save the Green Planet is the latest Korean import to reach our shores that demonstrates the country's ongoing cinematic renaissance. While it doesn't have the resonance of Oldboy or the stunning production values of Tae Guk Gi, the film is decidedly unlike anything else you'll see in theatres this spring. Part thriller, part dark comedy, part sci-fi epic, Save the Green Planet is both insanely addictive and completely insane.
The plot resembles John Fowles' The Collector by way of Men in Black. Lee Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-gyun) is a seemingly ordinary beekeeper, who lives with his girlfriend Sun-i (Hwang Jung-min), a rotund circus performer, in a decrepit house in the middle of nowhere. But the young man has a secret-he's discovered that the Earth has been infiltrated by an alien race known as the Andromedans. After years of toying with mankind, these cruel extraterrestrials are planning to do away with us once and for all at the next lunar eclipse. Byeong-gu takes it upon himself to save the planet by kidnapping the Andromedan leader, who has disguised himself as a wealthy businessman named Kang Man-shik (Baek Yun-shik). He captures Kang late one night and imprisons him in the large cellar beneath his house, where he subjects his prisoner to extended bouts of torture, including electroshock and menthol cream selectively applied to the feet, eyeballs and genitals. (Apparently, menthol is to Andromedans as Kryptonite is to Superman.)
It goes without saying that all is not what it seems. We soon learn that Kang owned the chemical factory where Byeong-gu and his mother used to work, before it was shut down following a violent protest. That same protest left his mother in a coma and his previous girlfriend buried six feet under. The dual tragedies pushed Byeong-gu, who was already a troubled kid, over the edge into full-on madness. Kang isn't even the first "alien" he's captured-he started with people who had tormented him in the past, including a childhood teacher and a sadistic factory security guard. All of these people have died as a result of his experiments and Kang seems to be next. But it turns out that the prisoner may know more about these Andromedans than he's letting on...
The movie's tone is established in the opening credits, a wild montage set to a hard-rock version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It's the perfect beginning to the picture, immediately thrusting the audience into the hyperactive mind of the protagonist.
Writer-director Jang keeps that energy going for the rest of the film; one almost gets the sense that he's making the story up as he goes along. That feeling is enhanced by the cheerful-and shameless-way he steals from other movies, from Misery to 2001. In fact, you could consider Save the Green Planet to be the cinematic equivalent of a mix tape. And yet, it's also a wholly unique creation. Jang's dark sense of humor holds the film together and takes it to a place the aforementioned movies didn't tread.
There will be some viewers who understandably won't want to take the ride, due to the film's gruesome torture sequences and general lack of a sympathetic character. (It is interesting to note that most of the Korean movies that have reached the United States so far feature fairly high levels of graphic violence-perhaps we should import a romantic comedy or coming-of-age story next, just for variety.) Admittedly, there's little to Save the Green Planet beyond the dark humor and crazed energy. Where Oldboy and Tae Guk Gi both had deeper layers to explore, this film's pleasures are primarily surface-level. In other words, it's the art-house equivalent of a summer blockbuster, right down to the requisite climactic explosion. Only in this case, mankind isn't necessarily the last species left standing.