When I mentioned to a friend that I would be watching Save the Green Planet!, he commented (the actual words he used were somewhat more vulgar): “that sounds like a movie for pussies.” After watching the film, I can justifiably tell that friend to not judge this movie by its cover. Save the Green Planet! is not a movie for pussies; rather, it is one of the most unsettling yet enjoyable films that I’ve seen.
The film’s main character is a young man named Lee Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun), who believes that aliens from the Andromeda Galaxy are about to attack Earth. In order to save our “green planet”, he kidnaps Kang Man-shik (Baek Yoon-sik, who also plays KCIA Director Kim in The President’s Last Bang), the CEO of a pharmaceutical factory he used to work for; Lee believes that Kang is an alien royal who will be able to contact the prince commanding the upcoming invasion. Searching for Kang are Detectives Chu (Lee Jae-yong) and Kim (Lee Ju-hyeon) from the Seoul Metropolitan Police, who manage to pin Lee as a suspect despite their supervisor’s managerial hijinks.
As you might expect, a guy who believes in aliens from the Andromeda Galaxy is not going to be entirely sane. The amphetamine-swallowing Lee, accompanied by his circus performer girlfriend Sooni and the warbling sounds of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, subjects Kang to various sadistic tortures in a dark basement, located at the top of an isolated mountain and filled with half-completed mannequins. Visually, aurally, and through Shin Ha-kyun’s acting prowess, the film leaves no doubt as to just how crazy our friend Lee is.
What’s even more awesomely horrifying about Save the Green Planet! is its ability to tease. At multiple junctures, Kang and the two Detectives look like they’re about to defeat Lee, but end up failing in the most gut-wrenching ways possible. The movie is a blood-curdling roller coaster ride that sodomizes your hopes as soon as they rise too high, and if your stomach is strong enough, you can get a massive kick from that all.
I’ve seen critics attack this film for being “tonally uneven.” I fully agree with that label, but believe it’s a massive asset rather than a liability. Sometimes Save the Green Planet! is downright funny, sometimes it’s heartwarming, and sometimes it scares the living shit out of you. As the film progresses we start learning more about Lee’s background and motivations—his mother is in a coma due to chemicals from Kang’s factory, his ex-girlfriend was beaten to death during a factory protest, and his father was a coal miner who met a bone-chilling end. Kang also starts playing along with Lee’s alien fantasies with such dramatic gravitas that you think he’s telling the truth, leading us to question what the real story here is. In this regard the film is somewhat reminiscent of Nabokov’s Lolita in its ability to evoke a twisted sense of sympathy for Lee, who is otherwise a complete monster.
However, with its gratuitous gore and crazed trajectory, Save the Green Planet! does make it somewhat difficult for viewers to think on a more philosophical level, though doing so is not impossible. The film is very character-driven, primarily by Lee and Kang, and though there certainly are plot-driven, higher-level messages about humanity, they are nowhere near as fascinating as the two leads. Nevertheless, the construction of the characters itself offers much in the field of thought and analysis, if you can acclimate yourself to the movie’s brutality, that is.
Maybe it’s because the movie’s still fresh in my mind, but Save the Green Planet! feels like one of the most, if not the most, “screwed-up” Korean films out there. This is no small feat, because it competes with exceptionally dark pieces like Oldboy and the other members of Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” which contain wonderful things like self-mutilation, incest, and bloodlust. Save the Green Planet! is no trashy horror movie though—it’s a wild ride that’ll bubble your brain and boggle your eyes. If you think the exclamation mark in the movie’s title denotes giddiness, unicorns, and rainbows, feel free to watch it and have your misconceptions reversed!
Save the Green Planet! (Korean: 지구를 지켜라!)—South Korea. Directed by Jang Joon-hwan. First released April 2003. Running time 1hr 58min. Starring Shin Ha-kyun, Baek Yoon-sik, Lee Jae-yong, Lee Ju-hyeon, and Hwang Jeong-min.