Mad conspiracy rules in Korean writer-director Jang Jun-hwan’s snazzy, playful, some-what gory, often hilarious, and generally unpredictable first feature. Save the Green Planet opens with a bang—a pair of wackos in homemade superhero gear abducting a middle-aged business tycoon in an underground garage—and never looks back.
The protagonist of Jang’s early short 2001 Imagine believed himself to be the reincarnation of John Lennon; here, the 35-year-old filmmaker posits a more elaborately delusional antihero. It is Lee Byeong-gu’s contention that Kang Man-shik, the CEO of a chemical corporation for which Lee used to work, is a creature from outer space—an Andromedan prince to be precise. The earth is being taken over by these extraterrestrial beings, with the destruction of the planet scheduled for the next lunar eclipse. Indeed, as Lee explains to his blank, dumpy female accomplice Sooni, Kang is the “perfect” specimen, with “no trace of alien.”
Once Lee and Sooni have imprisoned Kang in the sub-basement of the strange, strange ramshackle chalet they call home, Lee sets about proving Kang’s Andromedan nature by applying nasal spray to his feet. With earth’s would-be savior babbling nonstop nonsense as he sets about torturing his stoic captive, Save the Green Planet establishes a powerful sense of mania. That Lee is a beekeeper and Sooni, a sometime tightrope walker, calls him “honey” only adds to the sense of derangement.
Like the season’s other Korean release, Park Chanwook’s Oldboy, Jang’s movie is a heady mélange of revenge, hallucination, and Grand Guignol. Save the Green Planet shares its star (Shin Ha-gyun) and something of its tone with Park’s 2002 thriller Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but is less oppressively claustrophobic than Oldboy, a machine-tooled fantasia in which every surface seems lacquered with sweat. Not only does Green Planet appear to reference a number of turbulent incidents from South Korea’s recent past, but Jang’s delivery is engagingly loose. His one-movie new wave makes adroit use of photos, surveillance cams, animated drawings, newsreel footage, and a recurring, discordant version of “Over the Rainbow.”
Shifting gears from wacky to suspenseful to sadistic, Save the Green Planet is consistent only in its flash and characters—the movie is populated by multiple crazies, including the eccentric detective who, dropping in on Lee, manages to not notice anything odd until he finds a dog gnawing on a human bone. The movie starts like a creepy-crawly Silence of the Lambs-style policier with eco-hysterical overtones and—zooming back to put human history in the most atrocious possible perspective—winds up somewhere beyond Plan 9 From Outer Space, if not underground paranoidist Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99. Among other things, Jang contrives the funniest death-of-the-dinosaurs theory and 2001 parody that I’ve ever seen, and there’s a comedy control-room Armageddon ready-made for William Burroughs.
What’s most remarkable about this lurid, wildly busy spectacle is how serious it can be—that is, how poignant and poetic. It’s hard not to be touched by Lee’s vision of his mother (who has been put in a coma by an industrial accident) telling him that he alone can save the earth or the idea that, although the green planet may explode, television will always remember us to the cosmos.