Best Of Korean Cinema is a new fortnightly article looking at the diverse world of the Korean New Wave. We’ll be looking at everything from romance to K-Horror and eccentricities to the revenge thriller that has become synonymous with the countries international reputation. In this first edition, we shall be looking back at a striking directorial debut which is an entity unto itself, Save the Green Planet.
Directed by Joon-Hwan
With only a writing credit on the 1999 film Phantom: The Submarine, to his name, Joon-Hwan made his directorial debut in 2003. The resulting film, Save the Green Planet is a tricky beast to pin down, in that it almost entirely evades classification. It incorporates qualities from sci-fi, action, comedy, police procedural, torture, and horror. The basic sets up sees Byung-Gu (Ha-Kyun Shin) kidnap the CEO of a big corporation, because Byung-Gu believes company head Kang Man-shik (Yun-Shik Baek) is an alien from Andromeda who is going to destroy the world on the day of the forthcoming eclipse.
Much of the film has Kang tied up in Byung-Gu’s basement, with his head shaved and stripped down to his underwear, and tortured in the most specific ‘Andromedian’ ways. This means cutting his feet and spraying it with disinfectant and more wince worthily than that, the same is done to his ‘gentlemen’s area’. Thankfully the camera cuts away. That description alone could give the uninitiated the impression that this is a nasty little oddity, and to a point it is, some of the violence in the second half is tough, but to pigeonhole in the grotesque expanse of genre cinema would be missing the bigger picture. Alongside this narrative are storylines which see Byung-Gu struggling with his overweight acrobatic girlfriend and the investigation to find the CEO fronted by a rogue detective who solves crimes through his sense of smell.
Any oddity could be justified if you look hard enough, just like Jang Joon-Hwan’s film. That’s not what makes Save the Green Planet something worthy of the more adventurous film fans time, it’s the writing. We follow Byung-Gu through thick and thin, through gore and stylised fight sequences, and through it all the endeavour to save the world and protect his family prevail. That and the stunning performances of persistently overlooked Ha-Kyu Shin (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, JSA & Welcome to Dongmakgol) and Yun Shik-Baek (The President’s Last Bang, Woochi), contribute their fair share.
It’s a bizarre violent film, yes, but one that becomes easier to watch thanks to the optimism of the character, he is only trying to do the right thing. He also has a respectable backstory, many slasher films have used the ‘bad childhood = mass murderer” route to justify its villains, but here the lead character has had a bad life at every turn, he is trying to keep hold of the very few things he has left that mean anything. That develops into an intriguing duality; his actions are morally disgusting but the infectious idealism he carries his mission out with makes him impossible to dislike. A better-rounded anti-hero, than the post-western ideal that character archetype has come to embody in recent decades.
Dark, unique and imaginative, are all adjectives that could be used to describe Save the Green Planet, funny also belongs in that group. The idea of a grizzled, bald cop who has been forced to work in the kitchens going rouge and solving crimes with his nose is enough for the comedy. Then there’s the wire-fu action scene, a Jackie Chan/Buster Keaton like scene of high tension rubbery gymnastics, and a scene where someone shoots bees out of the air. To balance darkness alongside slapstick humour is one of the more common Korean cinematic tropes at large, to remember that makes the unlikely tonally shifts more tolerable or likeable.
As thoroughly entertaining and unique as the film is, it also embodies other Korean standards that aren’t upheld as strongly. 2 hours is about the average length for a Korean film, and it’s usually around the point that some of the thinner premises run into deep water. Here, the film reveals too much of the truth in its closing moments. Where much of the 118 minute running time played with the ambiguity of whether Byung-Gu was nuts or right all along, the film closes by answering that question. Ambiguity may not always be the answer, but with such an eccentric proposition it’s always the viewer’s imagination and not the writer’s explicit clarification that carries them over the threshold of greatness.
Next time on the Best of Korean Cinema, there will be a double bill of Young-doo Oh’s mad-cap The Neighbour Zombie and Invasion of Bikini Alien. After that we will be into more traditional titles with Joon-Ho Bong’s work.
Directors Other work:
Phantom: The Submarine (1999)
Phantom: The Submarine was a script co-written with Bong Joon-Ho.
Camellia (2011) – Love for Sale (Vignette).
Set in the future, when buying and selling memories is common, a man (Gang Dong-Won) attempts to retrieve his memory of lost love and his ex-girlfriend (Song Hye-Kyo). From description alone it sounds like an anti-eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.