Save the Green Planet Is a South Korean Tragi-Comedy of Intergalactic Importance
Someone needs to “Take Care of Earth.”
Welcome to a newly-revamped take on The Essentials. My goal has always been to talk about great movies worth watching, but for 2017 I want to narrow the focus by highlighting the little known and the unfairly maligned. So going forward I’ll be shining a light in two directions – I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
I’m saving my passionate argument regarding the brilliance of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li for a later entry, and for now I’m going to ease you in with a few words in praise of 2003’s genre-bending tragi-comedy from South Korea, Save the Green Planet.
I’ve been telling action junkies to watch Jang Joon-hwan’s immensely entertaining second feature, Hwayi: A Monster Boy, since its release in 2013, but his debut from a decade earlier is every bit as fantastic and holds up beautifully on re-watch. There are smartly-crafted action beats here, but the film is a wholly different creation. A revenge thriller of sorts, the film blends science fiction and social commentary into a tale of grief and mental illness, and the result is an experience that has viewers laughing one minute, anxious the next, and emotionally devastated just moments later. It’s a mad sort of genius deserving of more eyeballs.
Lee Byung-goo (Shin Ha-kyun) is aware of an impending alien invasion, and only he holds the key to stopping it. He lays out his plan to his lady friend, Sooni (Hwang Jeong-min), and together they move forward with the kidnapping of Kang Man-shik (Baek Yun-shik), the CEO of chemical company and the man Lee believes is no man at all and is instead an alien leader in human form.
Kang is definitely a prick – he’s a womanizer who shows no respect for his employees or those who cross his path – but the evidence for his being an alien rests solely in Lee’s head. He believes it, and Sooni believes him, but to our eyes Kang is simply a man. It’s an important distinction as the film forces our sympathies to shift throughout, and the first inklings that Lee’s thoughts might be more dangerous than true come as soon as they get Kang back to their underground bunker and begin torturing him.
They shackle him, shave his head – Lee says his hair acts as antennas for communicating with his alien compatriots – and begin inflicting real pain by scrubbing away his skin, shocking him, and applying hot irons to his chest. It’s grueling, and Kang’s screams of agony begin to shake our belief that Lee is a protagonist worth supporting here. By the time he smashes Kang’s shin with the blunt side of an ax head explaining that he’s “destroying hope, so you can’t escape” we’re forced to consider the possibility that Lee’s beliefs are based more in schizophrenia than in fact.
Dovetailing with Lee and Kang’s battle of wills is the police investigation into the CEO’s abduction and revelations about Lee’s past and present situations. His reality is heartbreaking as his life of abuse at the hands of his father, the authorities, and bosses is paired with memories of his ex-girlfriend’s death and his mother’s lapse into a coma. Those last two events are directly tied to Kang’s chemical factory, and just like that we’re back in Lee’s corner.
As mentioned at the start Jang’s film blends genres with ease, and as heavy and emotionally affecting as much of the film is there are moments and entire sequences that leave us laughing aloud at their goofiness. Smartly humorous dialogue and slapstick go hand in hand – there’s even a scene where a detective, under attack by a swarm of bees, fires two shots into the buzzing mass followed by close-ups of two individual bees falling to the ground. The film’s a pairing of tragedy and comedy unlike anything Hollywood can muster, and while the tone constantly threatens to lose its balance Jang keeps tight control through the very end.
The tonal juggling is never less than impressive and mesmerizing.
Kang’s physical pain is visible and raw, but Lee’s is every bit as viscerally presented as flashbacks show his suffering and losses while anguished hallucinations of his dying mother reveal a young man who’s lost in this world without her. But he also earns laughs through his costume choices, banter with those around him, and Jackie Chan-style physical antics. The soft spot beneath Lee’s madness is visible too in the sweetness of his love story with the shy tightrope-walker, Sooni. Fantastical worlds are brought to life before our eyes as Lee and Kang – in an effort to extend his own life – share “truths” about the aliens from Andromeda.
Save the Green Planet is a cautionary tale about humanity’s innate brutality, and it’s not very optimistic about our ability to change. There’s a moment late in the film where Lee tells someone to “Take care of Earth.” In many ways it’s the theme of the movie – we should care more about our planet, ourselves, and each other – but also, and the importance of this can’t be understated, Earth is the name of Lee’s dog.
Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along going forward with what I’m calling Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience despite how much they deserve to.