The closest analogue to Save the Green Planet that I could think of is with director Terry Gilliam, who in movies like Brazil and The Fisher King cheerfully exploded constraints of genre or sense. Save the Green Planet, the feature-film debut from Korean director Jun-hwan Jeon, doesn't so much occupy several genres as once as eat them alive. The film has elements of fantasy, police thrillers, horror, anarchic farce and black comedy, and even a fair amount of straight drama and tragedy. That they can all coexist together, much less make sense, is nothing short of miraculous.
One of the best perks of watching movies from other countries is seeing how they bring a unique perspective to material that one would think to be either exhausted or simply unfilmable. It's a difficult movie for me to explain without somehow also trying to convey the movie's anarchic but heartfelt tone. I don't often say a movie is like nothing you've ever seen, but this is one of the few movies that really earns the label.
The premise is absurd from the git-go. Lee (Ha-kyun Shin, who played the eerie deaf-mute in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), a beekeeper, tinkerer and recluse, shacks up with his girlfriend Sooni (Jeong-min Hwang) and tells her of his plan to save the world. Aliens are among us, he insists, and as he demonstrates in a hilarious slide-show that opens the film, one of them is none other than Kang Man-shik (Yun-shik Baek), a rich CEO of a chemical company with a few skeletons in his closet. Lee's plan, such as it is, is to kidnap Kang and hold him hostage until a solar eclipse several days later — at which time they will use Kang's innate powers to contact aliens from Andromeda and stop the imminent destruction of earth. Uh-huh.
Lee and Sooni accost Kang in the parking garage of his apartment building, tussle angrily, and finally shove the guy into the trunk of their car and go barreling out. But the timing of the fight is for comedy, not violence, with a raucous punk-rock version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" playing over the credits while they zoom on back to their hideout. Lee has a weird jerry-built lair reminiscent of the serial killer's house from The Silence of the Lambs, and in it he chains Kang to a toilet and prepares to experiment on him. Aliens, you see, are far tougher than we are ... especially when it comes to taking electric shocks, and burns on the nipples, and a thing that looks like a steam iron crossed with an electronic sex toy.
Kang is of course outraged and horrified, and does his best to resist or break out. Meanwhile, the cops investigating Kang's disappearance are clueless, but a former cop, Choo (Jae-yong Lee), now reduced to chopping fish for a living, buddies up with a self-appointed "fan" of his police work, Inspector Kim (Ju-hyeon Lee) to put the pieces together. Sure enough, Choo manages to figure out who the kidnapper might be, and tracks him to his lair. This leads to a scene of excruciating physical comedy — the sort of thing that sets the tone for the whole movie, where we laugh and wince often at the same time.
Just when the film seems to be getting predictable, it mutates, but it uses everything already established as a new direction for its material. At first it's a black comedy / farce; then it becomes a police procedural; then a violent thriller; then tragedy; then science fiction. People raised on more timid movies will probably fall over at the vigor with which Planet shifts gears on them. But it manages to add up and make sense through all of these mutations, and a great deal of that is due to excellent acting and directing all around.
What spares the film from being in bad taste, or running completely off its rails (as it threatens to do at more than a couple of points) is the way it generates empathy for Lee and his girl. They're nuts, yes, but their crazed urgency stems out of a real need that nothing else in their life has been able to satisfy. Late in the film there is a detailed explanation of where Lee's madness comes from, and how it connects to his crimes, but the film has already built up such sympathy for him that the explanation is mostly icing on the cake. (One of the best moments involves his relationship with Sooni, such as it is: did she give up her career to be with this lunatic out of love, or because he provided her with a sense of acceptance she couldn't get anywhere else?)
The other element of genius in the film, I think, is also a matter of tone. Everyone in the film plays it straight, even when they're in the fever grip of their obsessions. At one point Kang figures out, as best he can, the nature of Lee's pathology and tries to misdirect him. He feeds him a speech about the origins of the aliens that is depicted in hilariously over-the-top imagery, but what makes it even funnier is that the characters play it and take it totally straight. No one winks at the camera once, not even when they're babbling about alien DNA and cosmic experiments on dinosaurs.
Planet is shot in a funky, saturated, high-tech style that calls to mind some of the grimier thrillers of recent years (the Korean film Tell Me Something comes to mind, or SE7EN). Sequences are interrupted for quick blizzards of stop-motion or computer animated effects to underscore the thought processes of some characters. Lee's notebooks come to life to describe how the aliens work (like the explanation of why an antihistamine lotion messes up the aliens' nervous systems). The crazed style fits the material perfectly. This isn't a timid movie in any respect; the rapid-fire camerawork and editing are complements to a story that unspools as violently as a broken watch spring.
The end of the film is a head-spinner, to put it mildly, a what-the-hell? on the order of Takashi Miike's Dead or Alive. But there are hints that it is essentially allegorical, and that even if you don't take it literally it still speaks volumes to the audience. Perhaps the best comment I can make about this crazy-quilt comes from another medium. Once, after hearing Bitches Brew, a music journalist asked what Miles Davis was supposed to be playing (jazz? bebop? funk?), and he answered, "Music." In the same way, Save the Green Planet is a movie, the sort of movie I watch movies to discover and savor and adore.
Postscript: The film did not do well financially in Korea, but it was critically acclaimed and wound up garnering three awards at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, three prizes at the Korean Grand Bell Awards, and a best director award for Jung Jun-hwan at the 25th Moscow International Film Festival. It's the sort of genre-busting surprise that would make a perfect addition to any English-language film festival.
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