Despite being a box office flop in its native Korea, “Save the Green Planet” has been enjoying a great deal of success at international film festivals. Apparently the reason behind the film’s initial commercial failure was that it was marketed as a wacky romantic comedy, presumably to cash in on the success of films like “My Sassy Girl”. This is a real shame, though I guess I can sympathize somewhat with the film’s distributors. Although “Save the Green Planet” is most definitely not a romantic comedy in any shape or form, it is kind of hard to pin down exactly what type of film it is, since it contains science fiction, human drama, serial killings, police investigations, and much more.
Thankfully, despite having a plot that initially seems like it’s banking everything on a ‘big twist’ type finale and thus heading into the dull and sterile territory of M. Night. Shyamalan, the film turns into something quite different, being quite moving and making a genuine effort to speak to the viewer. At the end of the day, “Men in Black” on acid comparisons aside, this film is at heart a character study that focuses on fear, despair, and our struggle to make sense of why our lives are so full of pain.
It’s probably best if I keep the plot details somewhat sketchy, as a fair proportion of enjoying “Save the Green Planet” comes from trying to work out where the constantly shifting story is going next. Basically, the film follows Byeong-gu (Ha-Kyun Shi, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”), a man who believes that the world is under threat from alien invasion and that he is the only one who can intervene. Aided by girlfriend Su-ni (Jeong-min Hwang), Byeong-gu kidnaps people he believes to be aliens, interrogates them, tortures them, and then kills them. His latest victim is Kang (Yun-shik Baek, “The Big Swindle”), the CEO of a large corporation, and a man who may turn out to be more than a match for his captor. As a lone police investigator closes in, Byeong-gu becomes more desperate and his mental state declines, leaving everyone wondering if he is in fact insane, or if aliens really are planning to invade the Earth.
As I mentioned, at first the film may seem like it’s putting all its eggs in one basket and relying on the ‘is he crazy or not’ ending to keep the viewer entertained. However, although this question is obviously an important part of the fascinating plot, the film is far more concerned with the actual character of Byeong-gu, the life he has led and things that have been done to him. As things progress, it becomes clear that first time director Jun-hwan Jeong (who also wrote the 1999 submarine thriller “Phantom”) is trying to make a statement about the cruelty of human beings and life in general. This message is developed gradually as flashbacks and current events reveal more about the main character, and is generally very successful, despite a few unnecessary and obvious attempts to generate empathy towards the end.
This is not to suggest that “Save the Green Planet” is slow moving or being purely reliant on its more cerebral aspects. In fact, the film is fast moving and packed with entertaining scenes, which despite being mixed in from a variety of genres come together to form an exciting, coherent whole that perfectly compliment its emotional core. The film is generally very funny, though most of the humor is of a very dark vein, and this helps the viewer sympathize with the characters.
As a result of this, the violence, of which there is quite a lot, some of it rather unpleasant (the film has a Hong Kong Category III rating), has a great deal more impact than in other films. Events in the film do frequently turn bloody and sadistic, often mixed in with slapstick comedy, leaving the viewer feeling both amused and uncomfortable. However, the film never steps over the line into incoherence, and instead maintains a sense of manic originality and freshness that is uncommon in so many recent films.
Given that the film is very much character driven, it is fortunate that Ha-Kyun Shi is excellent in the lead role. His performance is note perfect, winning audience sympathy with a character who is actually quite frightening and whose actions are often repellent. The true measure of Shi’s success in the role is that by the end of the film, the viewer cares not so much whether he is insane or not, but as to what will happen to him regardless. The rest of the supporting cast is similarly good, especially Yun-shik Baek as the abused captive whose chances of survival appear to be getting slimmer by the minute.
Overall, “Save the Green Planet” is an original and innovative effort that manages not only to entertain on multiple levels, but also to make the viewer think and feel. Although it’s a hard film to label, this is undoubtedly one of the best of the last few years.
Jun-hwan Jeong (director) / Jun-hwan Jeong (screenplay)
CAST: Ha-kyun Shin …. Lee Byeong-gu
Yun-shik Baek …. Kang Man-shik
Jeong-min Hwang …. Su-ni
Jae-yong Lee …. Inspector Choo