“I sometimes feel as if movies from all over the world have melted inside me,” said South Korean filmmaker Jang Jun-hwan with a grin during an onstage interview in Vancouver, following a dramatic screening of his five-minutes-into-the-future shocker Save the Green Planet back in late 2003. The hearty laugh his quip occasioned was connected with the events that had preceded it: a projector snag and consequent on-screen frame immolation that gave the film’s harrowing final moments an additionally unsettling frisson. But Green Planet‘s amphetamine-addled genre-scramble of flat-footed police procedurals, alien-invasion theories, end-times agonizing, and other assorted terrors of South Korean sociopolitical life is a movie lover’s mind fry no matter where it’s screened. A kidnapping caper in which a man-boy victim of industrial indifference convinces himself and his girlfriend, a rotund tightrope walker in a tragically tight tutu, that the CEO they’ve abducted is an intergalactic overlord from planet Andromeda, Jang’s debut feature isn’t just an exhilarating erasure of all the ink and online emotion being spilled over the inferior Oldboy; it’s one of the best films of the year.
As stained by the blood of the Kwangju massacre—the violently suppressed 1980 street protest often referred to as Korea’s Tiananmen Square and the inspiration (with a little help from The Exorcist) for prior cine-generation master Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal—Save the Green Planet may be filled with excruciating moments, but it’s as much concerned with the politics of pleasure as lessons learned in pain. This new generation’s Jang, who was too young to have experienced what he calls Korea’s “smoky, tear-gas-in-the-face history” firsthand, claims to value Hollywood movies just as much as the tougher-minded films Korea calls its own. “I remember liking Misery a lot when it came out,” he recently recollected of the Stephen King adaptation that would prove an inspiration, “but it bothered me that [the Kathy Bates character] was just this crazy bitch. I knew that I wanted to make a film about kidnapping, but I also knew that I’d have to come at it from the opposite direction. I’d have to take the kidnapper’s point of view. And when I came across this anti-DiCaprio website, claiming that he was an alien who was trying to seduce all the women on the planet in order to conquer earth, the two ideas seemed to fit.”
A graduate of the Korean Academy of Fine Arts who first appeared on film festival radars with his 1995 short 2001 Imagine, a John Lennon-related whatsit to rival Chris Munch’s The Hours and Times, Jang credits Green Planet‘s keenly detailed visuals (mutating cell-structure montages, speed-scribbled notebook ravings, Claymation accounts of dinosaur extinction) less to his background as a painter than his love of Japanese anime and cheap fantasy spectacles like The Seven Wonders of the World. For his next film, he’s planning to revamp the superhero genre. Don’t be surprised if saving the world—or wishing you could have—returns to haunt Jang’s screen dreams.