Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone, but there are aliens among us, working on a vast conspiracy to enslave or destroy the human race. Don’t bother trying to find them, however. Their disguises are too good. And besides, even if you told someone that you’d seen an alien, would they believe you? After all, everyone knows that aliens only exist in sci-fi films (i.e. alien propaganda). But they really do exist, and if noone stops them in four days, humanity is doomed.
At least, that’s what Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun) thinks. In order to stop the alien plot, he kidnaps Kang Man-shik, the CEO of a powerful chemicals firm, whom he believes to be the head of the alien forces. After shaving his head (because aliens communicate telepathically via their hair) and stripping him of his clothes, he locks Man-shik up in his basement and proceeds to torture him, trying to extract any information he can. Within five minutes of watching the movie, it’s obvious that Byeong-gu is absolutely insane, spouting off crackpot theories while popping handfuls of pills. But the thing is, he might be right.
Director Jang Jun-hwan (who also wrote the screenplay) plays up this ambiguity incredibly well throughout the film. You’re never sure who or what to believe, and he keeps you guessing right up until the film’s final scene. Perhaps this “alien plot” is just a product of Byeong-gu’s fevered mind. After all, his life has been dominated by a cycle of abuse and neglect, and this might just be the only way he can deal with the pain that has controlled his life.
Or maybe it’s all just an attempt to lash out at Man-shik, who, as we learn later, was responsible for the death of Byeong-gu’s first girlfriend and the hospitalization of his mother, among other things. But just when you’re convinced that Byeong-gu should be locked away in a padded room for life, some clever plot twist suddenly lends credence to his crazy theories.
Jun-hwan also proves just as successful at playing with the audience’s emotions as their perceptions. Although I saw many black comedies at this year’s Toronto festival, none had me laughing as hard or as often as Save the Green Planet. From the brilliant opening sequence in which Byeong-gu lays out his conspiracy theory for his naïve girlfriend (with a punk version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” rocking in the background) to his bumbling attempt at kidnapping, from his evasion of a nosy police detective to his bug-eyed responses at Man-shik’s denials, the audience is constantly kept in stitches. The script is full of clever dialog (including some hilarious sci-fi homages/parodies), and Ha-kyun’s performance is deliriously over the top.
However, the film also knows how to make you squirm. The torture scenes, while not excessively gruesome, get the point across that Byeong-gu is not someone to trifle with. There are plenty of little twists, such as the fate of the detective who gets too close to Byeong-gu’s plans, that will leave you going “Ewwwwww.” While things do get a tad dark and disturbing at times, especially when Byeong-gu resorts to more and more extreme measures to get Man-shik to confess, I would hesitate to call them gratuitous (although the crucifixion scene did leave me a bit queasy). Jun-hwan knows how to toe the line, pushing things until you know that Byeong-gu means business without ever descending into needless gore and violence.
And besides, Man-shik is such a total bastard that he probably deserves some of what he’s getting.
But what really impressed me about the film is just how sympathetic and complex Byeong-gu’s character becomes as you learn more about him and his painful, troubled life. There is much that is laudatory about Save the Green Planet, but Jun-hwan’s greatest accomplishment is how well he develops Byeong-gu’s character. And again, it’s worth noting Ha-kyun’s amazing performance. As the film continues, he transforms Byeong-gu from the comedic crackpot we saw at first into a tragic hero that you can’t help but cheer for, even when it seems obvious that he’s totally wrong. And the film’s ending, besides being completely unexpected and absolutely brilliant, is also quite moving and bittersweet, a perfect finale for Byeong-gu’s troubled life.
I’ll be honest… I love this film, and objectivity be damned. This is the sort of film that defines “cult cinema,” a priceless little classic that people track down, regardless of how long it takes or how much it costs, simply because they believe that as many people as possible need to see it. I’ve been unable to not talk about this film to my friends. As soon as they ask me about Toronto, I break into a huge smile because I’m about to have the privilege of telling them about this movie. Simply put, I cannot wait to show my friends Save the Green Planet, because a film like this deserves to be seen, that deserves to have people go gaga over it.
That’s why the Midnight Madness screening of Save the Green Planet on September 12th, 2003 will always remain a treasured moviegoing experience of mine. When Save the Green Planet was released in South Korea, it bombed. For some reason that only God knows, it was billed as a romantic comedy (My Tutor Friend it most definitely ain’t), and it tanked with the hometown crowds. But then it comes over to Canada, to the Uptown in Toronto. It plays and the entire crowd goes wild, all 900 of us.
Jun-hwan was there, and when I think about what it must have been like for him to hear all 900 of us laugh and scream and applaud the way we did, about what might have gone through his mind when he was mobbed by people asking for his autograph or picture, about how he felt when he saw his film get the love it so richly deserved… well, it makes me a little misty-eyed. This is the whole reason why I watch and review movies, so I can get find little gems like Save the Green Planet, films which blow me away and leave me grasping for words so I can sing their praises.