This is one of the reasons I love Asian cinema. Looking at the cover of Save the Green Planet (2003), your expectation is that it will be some kind of silly comedy. As a matter of fact, it was the cover that made me dismiss the film during its initial DVD release. Then, word began to trickle out that there was a very dark film hidden underneath that, frankly, lame cover. Even the first fourth of the film may have you leaning towards it being some Gilliamesque dark comedy, but the humor of this fantastically premised gem slowly leaks out and what you are left with at the end is an increasing bleak and mean little piece of work. Call it a different sensibility, call it bad cover design, it makes for one hell of a surprise.
Byun-goo (Shin Ha-kyun) thinks he must save the earth from Andromeda aliens. The boyish introvert is convinced of this alien plot, that they live amoung us, and he intends to kidnap a key player, Kang Man-shik (Baek Yun-shik), 45, the head CEO of Yue Chemical. Byun-goo believes that the executive is an Andromedon alien with the royal DNA bloodline that enables him to contact the Andromeda prince.
Then again, Byun-goo could just be bat shit crazy.
With the aid of his portly simple-minded girlfriend Sooni, Byun-goo abducts Kang Man-shik and secrets the executive/possible alien interloper away to his secluded home and begins to subject Kang Man-shik to a series of tortures that will reveal his alien persona. Of course, first he shaves Kang Man-shik's head because that is how Andromeda aliens use their telepathy- then he gets to the physical punishment and the mentholated rub. Meanwhile, the police force is deep into the case, with Kang Man-shik's status as the son-in-law of the chief of police adding to the severity of finding him quickly. Sunk into the shadows of his glory days, Detective Chu thinks he is on the right track, but only a rookie upstart believes him.
Save the Green Planet is a hard one to classify. It has an odd mix of tones, some comedic stuff, some heartfelt and serious moments, down to the just plain weird or fantastic, but all under a grisly and increasingly dark veil. Despite that comedic cover and the slight touches of comedy, the comedy doesn't equal levity. Calling it a dark comedy doesnt work because the comedy is so scant. I lean towards calling it a dark fantasy since that is the overwhelming feeling of the piece. Anyone picking it up expecting belly laughs will soon find enough electrocutions, hot steam emitting dildos, and pet dogs raised on a diet of manflesh to drive most of those giggles away.
By the film's end, it is revealed whether of not Byung-goo is crazy or was right all along. I would have been fine without the answer. I mean, regardless, Byung-goo, right or wrong, is clearly unbalanced and Kang Man-Shik, alien or not, is clearly tortured. But, up until the final reveal, it does a great balancing act. For instance, Byung-goo is fueled by methamphetamines and keeps a house that John Doe from Se7en would be at home in. He is crazy enough that when Kang Man-shik endures the homemade torture devices Byung-goo has designed, you feel both sympathy for the businessman and doubts about Byung-goo's wild theories. Eventually, Byung-goo's tragedy filled past also points to the roots of his possible delusions. But then again, Kang Man-shik does survive tortures that would supposedly (according to Byung-goo) kill a normal man?
The film lays the eccentricity pretty thick. The basic plot is weird enough, yet you've also got Byung-goo being an amateur mannequin builder/beekeeper. His doll lovin' girlfriend has, considering her physique, the unlikely career of tightrope walker. When your film is as far out there as this one is, I guess anything is game. Pile on the wierdness. Two things that aren't really addressed is just how Byung-goo came into his Andromeda conspiracy theories in the first place or just what good his plan of using Kang Man-shik to contact the Prince of Adromeda will do. I mean, just cause' you get Hitler's phone number that doesn't mean you're a phone call away from stopping him. And Hitler wasn't the leader of an alien race from another galaxy... or was he?
Director Jun-hwan Jeong paints an entertaining fantasy and also manages to slip in a nice nod to 2001. Its main fault is that it doesn't really have any message per se, it's just about an obsessed/possibly insane guy who abducts a businessman he thinks is an alien and then proceeds to torture him. Its a real midnight movie and, thankfully, this one is so far out there I doubt it'll be getting a Hollywood remake. I almost forgot to note, thanks to some good performances and surprising twists, the police procedure subplot of trying to track down Kang Man-shik's kidnapper is quite interesting and never feels like a diversion from the main focal point of the film.
The DVD: CJ Entertainment, a Korean based Region 3 distributor.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. This print is pretty much blemish free and, to my eye, spotless. Colors appear spot on. The film drenches many scenes with particular hues, be they alien greens or brilliant blues. Likewise the flesh tones are very well rendered. Sharpness is crisp. Contrast is very deep. When you consider the wealth of darkly lit interiors, the details in the transfer are extremely pleasing. A certain level of grain is apparent, but that appears intentional to compliment the style and mood of the film. No edge enhancement of artifacts whatsoever. Overall it is a high grade job that presents the visuals in the best possible light.
Sound: Korean language DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, or 2.0 Stereo tracks. Optional Korean or English subtitles. One of the things that really amazed me when I began to discover modern Korean cinema was their high quality sound design. Here, the DTS and 5.1 channels truly shine with a wealth of bright and bassy surround. The score emotionally swoops in and the fx is very well mixed. The separation is great, but audiophiles will find that even the basic stereo option is quite good.
Extras: Disc One: Commentary (Korean language only, not subtitled). Disc Two: Three different "Making of Save the Green Planet" featurettes (again, no subs)— Cast and Crew Interviews (ditto, no subs)— "Art of Save the Green Planet" featurette (guess what? no subs)— "Music from Save the Green Planet" featurette (yep, no subs)— 9 Deleted Scenes with Director introductions (no subs but still interesting)— Preview section; Screening intro. (no subs), Music video (no subs), Theatrical and Teaser trailer, plus TV Spot (no subs, no subs, no subs)... If you are fluent in Korean- great. If you are like me, and I figure most of the audience reading this is, not so great.
Conclusion: Save the Green Planet is a dark oddball tale sure to please fans of off-kilter cinema. The Region 3 Korean DVD offers the film with great image and sound and an extras disc that unfortunately isn't English friendly. Still, for all-region capable fans, this is one worth checking out.