For All Mankind: Jang Jun-hwan’s “Save the Green Planet”
by Michael Joshua Rowin, with responses by James Crawford and Jeff Reichert
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
What the world needs now is better, funnier, darker apocalyptic movies. “Save the Green Planet” provides the blueprints, if not the perfect synthesis, for a disturbingly relevant representation of our headed-over-the-cliff times. “Green Planet”‘s South Korean writer-director Jang Jun-hwan imagines the fate of the human race hinging on the bitter, paranoid conspiracy theories of Lee Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun), a beekeeper who kidnaps and tortures his former boss and CEO, Kang Man-shik (Baek Yun-shik), proposing that he is leader of the Andromedans, an alien race intent on destroying Earth. Hopped up on methamphetamines and harboring a lifetime’s worth of trauma, Lee, supposedly the sole human capable of saving the world, comes under increasing suspicion; delusions of grandeur would sufficiently account for the heroic role Lee constructs for himself to justify the brutal torture he inflicts on Kang, who he blames for the factory accident that placed his mother in a five-year coma. But the saying “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you” might also apply.
The skeletal plot summary supplied above doesn’t begin to account for “Save the Green Planet”‘s unique mash-up of genres and its sustained, frenzied pacing. Running the sci-fi gauntlet from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to “2001” to “The X-Files,” while unabashedly swiping pages out of detective thrillers, martial-arts flicks, and ultraviolent kidnapping pictures, “Green Planet” revels in its disdain for generic consistency by successfully creating a humorous/disturbing amalgam. In his debut feature Jang has already become a master of building suspense and shocking the eye — warp-speed editing and sequences of unparalleled, inventive gruesomeness (including a bee attack and a crucifixion that would shame Mel Gibson) are combined with terrific twistings of the narrative knife.
“Save the Green Planet” falls apart, however, when one places its convoluted back-story under scrutiny. The real creation story of humanity, as revealed by the Andromedans, goes like this (spoiler warning): mankind is an alien experiment accidentally failing because of a flawed gene; the aliens are currently testing for superior organisms that could redeem the species by placing certain people, like the perpetually victimized Lee, under constant mental and physical duress. As clever as it sounds, and as much as it taps into contemporary end-of-days global anxiety, gaping contradictions remain. If mankind’s evil is encoded, inherent, then why are the film’s major calamities — the ones visited upon Lee, his mother, and his deceased girlfriend — shown to be the result of alien-controlled corporate negligence? Lee’s socially constructed psychosis is strangely at odds with “Green Planet”‘s deterministic reading of civilization’s history of catastrophic error.
Jang’s vision also too carefully skirts around the tensions of class resentment often explored in kidnapping films, most famously in Kurosawa‘s “High and Low,” which investigated the social stratification in Japan’s burgeoning postwar embrace of capitalism. In between the routine policier subplot and oddball ornaments like Lee’s tightrope walker girlfriend, South Korea’s current growing pains are hardly given the same attention in “Green Planet.” Instead, the attempt to pit society’s victim versus society’s victimizer becomes a simplistically psychologized case of a pitiable innocent driven to extremes by successive encounters with bullies. Never revealed are the conditions of Lee’s working-class life or the details of his mother’s workplace mishap, all glossed over in a lugubrious montage of formative humiliations when Kang discovers Lee’s diaries (in retrospect, this scene also allows Jang to “cheat” at his story). I don’t expect a “Tout va bien”-like examination of the means of production in an extraterrestrial cover-up film, but Jang could have used class in order to present a more formidable employee-employer confrontation than the ones placed among the film’s indulgent scenes of violent retribution.
Finally, the reverse-triumph ending of “Save the Green Planet” collapses down upon the film’s own “thrill-ride” foundation. There’s not much one can feel but an exhausted resignation upon the film’s unconvincing indictment of the human race. Similarly, the home-movie footage of Lee played during the credits, like the montage mentioned previous, can only signify a hollow “thus goes a martyr” tribute. What he was a martyr for, or why, remains lost in the hallucinatory extravagances of a film that brings viewers kinetically, viscerally into its universe, but knows not why.
[ Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot, has written for the Independent, Film Comment, and runs the blog, Hopeless Abandon. ]
By James Crawford
“Save the Green Planet” is faintly maddening because it determinedly eludes categorization, so many genres does Jang incorporate into his paranoid extra-terrestrial fantasy. It’s nominally low-tech sci-fi, but, in absence of any significant narrative thrust, the film reads more like a psychological investigation into the mental state of its bug-eyed conspiracy theory protagonist, Lee. That he believes an alien cabal is poised to destroy Earth does not make Lee crazy; however, the physical violence he inflicts on Kang does. But even as the film settles into a scrupulously detailed tract of “Oldboy”-worthy torture (replete with agonizing close-ups and shock effects derived from horror conventions) the story then cuts to a parallel narrative, a police procedural showing how the dragnet slowly, clumsily closes in around the kidnapper-torturer, thus diffusing the tension. In one scene, a tour-de-force of blackly comic physical contortion, Lee manages just barely to avoid betraying his identity to the police, and by virtue of the endearingly goofy, vaguely acrobatic, and sublimely ingenious ways that Lee manages do so, we find ourselves momentarily rooting for him to succeed. In the harrowing aftermath, however, Jang brings this levity crashing to earth, moving back onto the terrain of pure horror as Lee metes out more punishment. The abutting scenes are typical of the film’s transgressive intentions: the ability to cross thematic and emotional boundaries on a razor’s edge without feeling forced or contrived.
Though in a vastly different realm, watching “Save the Green Planet” is akin to reading Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Jang slowly widens the horizon of generic expectations, incrementally expanding what an audience will accept in terms of violence, comedy, etc. It’s only upon final reflection that the magnitude of displacement from start to endpoint is clear. Even now, I’m still not sure I like where I was taken.
[ James Crawford is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot. ]
By Jeff Reichert
About three-quarters of the way through “Save the Green Planet” I still wondered if the ratio of slapstick to sadism should have been a retooled a little towards the former. However, after writer/director Jang Jun-hwan tips his hand with the melancholic montage of violence committed upon the person of his unstable protagonist, “Green Planet” becomes less an unhinged torture trip and more an elegy for an erstwhile planet run by violent monkeys bearing an evolutionary malfunction, and the mix makes a little more sense. Still, sadism will only take a film so far, even if the lead is a paranoid sort that sees aliens lurking in the skins of a host of authority figures and who’s willing to cut, bash, burn, poison them out of their disguises. I kept wondering what a lighter remake with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss might look like — “Bob Saves the Green Planet,” anyone? Would this shift have necessarily diffused the societal critique, or might it have lobbed it even further, getting it stuck in the brains of the type of folks seeking light entertainment to whom this dark — very dark — film was apparently mismarketed in Korea?
“Green Planet” wins definite points for throwing me off the scent and convincing me that Kang Man-shik’s narrative about the hidden history of planet Earth would be its Keyser Soze moment, constructed as it seemed from bits and scraps of information pulled from scanning his torturer’s own library of conspiracy theories. And again in his climax Jang throws well-established audience sympathies for a loop. But, in a wonderful, wholly unexpected twist, the film’s final moments reveal “Save the Green Planet” as a true-blue rarity: a film daring enough to follow its initial premise to its ultimate, extremely (il)logical conclusion.
[ Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures. ]