Byeong-gu gets to work interrogating 'alien' Man-shik

Save the Green Planet (지구를 지켜라!) – ★★★★☆

Save the Green Planet (지구를 지켜라!)

Save the Green Planet (지구를 지켜라!)

Cult classic Save the Green Planet (지구를 지켜라!) is perhaps best described as Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) meets Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) through an amalgamation of dark comedy and disparate genres. While this might sound like an absurd concoction, writer/director Jang Jun-hwan (장준환) merges the assorted features into an incredibly  compelling and entertaining whole, one that moves seamlessly from the madcap to the profound in the creation of a unique celluloid gem. Unfortunately the cult status Save the Green Planet has acquired in foreign territories wasn’t replicated on Korean soil, where it took a nose-dive at the box office. This is a genuine shame as, while not perfect, Save the Green Planet highlights director Jang’s distinctive style and is a highly refreshing departure from other, more formulaic, productions.

Recluse Lee Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun (신하균) becomes obsessed with the notion that Earth is under threat from aliens hailing from Andromeda. To save the green planet, Byeong-gu and his partner Su-ni (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) kidnap the CEO of a large chemical conglomerate, Kang Man-shik (Baek Yoon-sik (백윤식), believed to be one of the most senior ranking aliens. Torturing the executive for answers, Byeong-gu attempts to discover the clandestine machinations of the race, as well as saving his mother who he also believes to be a victim of alien experimentation. Yet the kidnapping does not go unnoticed by the law, with the police force – as well as a renegade cop – following the trail.

Is Byeong-gu mentally unstable, or does he hold the key to Earth's survival?

Is Byeong-gu mentally unstable, or does he hold the key to Earth’s survival?

‘Madcap’ is a word often used to describe Save the Green Planet and that it is, although not in the haphazard manner the word implies. Director Jang Joon-hwan displays a keen understanding of the array of cinematic traits he employs, competently structuring them in order to provide the best possible use of generic conventions whilst also deriving dark-comedy from the source. Scenes featuring horror, thriller, and dramatic traits flow seamlessly, constructing dramatic tension yet often exhibiting a tongue-in-cheek sensibility as it does so. Torture sequences, for example, feature toe-curling moments but are also incredibly – and darkly – funny, as evil CEO Man-shik has antihistamine rubbed into wounds and is routinely degraded. Similarly, references to accomplished cinematic classics that arise throughout the film are genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and are enjoyable for cinephiles and occasional movie fans alike.

However, humour is just one of the many facets that make Save the Green Planet so entertaining. What truly makes the film so engaging are the underlying themes of the narrative and the psychological disposition of central protagonist Byeong-gu. From the outset, Byeong-gu is conveyed as seriously mentally ill. His theories regarding aliens from Andromeda is the stuff of B-movie science fiction material, while his attire and quirkiness belie the horrors that await in his private torture chamber. Yet his unique perspective on the world is an ironic one, as he uncovers scandals, corruption and amorality in attempting to prove the existence of aliens. Byeong-gu is indeed correct about the Earth being under threat, just not in the manner that his neurosis has constructed. It is in danger through the machinations of the rich and powerful, features which Byeong-gu strips away in order to reveal the ‘truth’ – and potentially atonement – making the unhinged young man something of an anti-hero.

Byeong-gu gets to work interrogating 'alien' Man-shik

Byeong-gu gets to work interrogating ‘alien’ Man-shik

As a result of all his eccentricities the film is a deeply psychological exploration of Byeong-gu’s paranoid mind, one that becomes more and more apparent through multiple viewings. As the unstable protagonist’s history is uncovered, director Jang crafts a biting social commentary regarding contemporary Korea, one that certainly would not be out of place in a Lee Chang-dong film. In doing so Byeong-gu’s cause – and indeed the film itself – is given incredible heartfelt merit, so much so that despite the atrocities he commits his status as an anti-hero is actually heightened. Director Jang intelligently articulates Byeong-gu’s psychosis through the mise-en-scene of the homestead, a multi-tiered countryside abode that features dimly-lit mannequins in the basement and bee hives in the garden, all symbolically linked to is unbalanced mind.

With such a wealth of character material, Shin Ha-kyun doesn’t disappoint. Arguably his career best, Shin is simply excellent in the role with his chameleonic ability to switch between manic highs and solemn lows incredibly impressive and, despite the often comical attributes, sincere. The protagonist could easily be another silly psycho but Shin gives Byeong-gu heart and conviction to make him truly sympathetic, and one of the most memorable characters in contemporary Korean cinema. Such focus unfortunately isn’t bestowed upon other members within the film, notably love interest Su-ni and the assortment of bumbling and renegade cops on the kidnapping trail, ultimately leading to plot threads that are never really mined for their potential. But as Byeong-gu is so charismatic and engaging such shortcomings are easily ignored, as it’s largely due to him that Save the Green Planet is such a compelling genre-bending film.

Battered and bruised, Man-shik attempts to discover Byeong-gu's secrets

Battered and bruised, Man-shik attempts to discover Byeong-gu’s secrets

Verdict:

Save the Green Planet is a thoroughly engaging and fun amalgamation of disparate generic features, all interwoven into a uniquely thrilling whole. Yet in addition to the madcap antics, director Jang Joon-hwan has crafted a biting social satire as well as a highly memorable, psychologically unbalanced anti-hero in the form of Byeong-gu. While the array of characters means that not all get a chance to shine, Byeong-gu’s heartfelt conviction overshadow such shortcomings. Save the Green Planet an incredibly enjoyable, strikingly powerful, and uniquely refreshing film.

★★★★☆

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The students of No Use High relish in their sexual promiscuity and non-traditional education

Dasepo Naughty Girls (다세포 소녀) – ★★☆☆☆

Dasepo Naughty Girls (다세포 소녀)

Dasepo Naughty Girls (다세포 소녀)

The opportunity to talk in terms of queer theory, ‘camp’, and ‘otherness’ in mainstream Korean cinema is quite rare. While Korean ideology continually changes at an incredible rate, the conservative Confucian ethics still hold immense influence over the attitudes towards the roles of men, women, and sexual relations. Yet cinema is arguably the best medium in which to explore such counter-cultural themes given the creative freedom of expression inherent to the industry, perhaps more so than the structurally rigid television dramas and K-pop. Enter Dasepo Naughty Girls (다세포 소녀).

Based on the highly popular web-comic, Dasepo Naughty Girls explores the lives of the students at Useless High School (or No Use High), a school where sexual promiscuity is encouraged and the curriculum is anything but traditional. Director Lee J-young (이재용) wisely exploits the opportunity to employ original and creative vision to a narrative that includes protagonists of every sexual persuasion and circumstance. The result is incredibly mixed, as the directorial flair is certainly unique and celebratory, yet is aligned with an awfully vapid and directionless narrative that not only forces the LGBT and transvestite characters into figures of ridicule, but also pushes the boundaries of perversity as certain scenarios are clearly middle-aged male fantasies.

The students at No Use High live rather disparate lives. ‘Poor Girl’ (Kim Ok-bin (김옥빈) lives an extremely humble life due to poverty, literally carrying its’ personification on her back. ‘Rich Boy’ Anthony (Park Jin-woo (박진우) has found love, yet is confused as she is a pre-op transgendered person interestingly named ‘Two Eyes’. Her brother, ‘Cyclops’ (Lee Kyeon (이켠), suffers as the loneliest and only virginal member of the school. As the students’ lives are interwoven, each one must face personal trials to overcome before the final day of graduation. Yet their greatest obstacle is posed by the evil and mysterious principle, who has the power to change bold, individualistic female students into brainwashed geeks. The students must work together to defeat the evil menace in order to continue their lifestyles and graduate unscathed.

The students of No Use High relish in their sexual promiscuity and non-traditional education

The students of No Use High relish in their sexual promiscuity and non-traditional education

Stylistically, Dasepo Naughty Girls is an enjoyable treat with a vibrant colour palette and quirky musical offerings. The opening sees a group of K-pop stylized girls in pink dancing through the school, which is not only fun but sets up the offbeat nature of the film well. Similarly the introduction of musical numbers within the film is entertaining and unique as Korean norae-bang (singing room) culture is wonderfully injected to provide comedy.

Yet aside from a few initial titters, Dasepo Naughty Girls is surprisingly very light on comedy as the scenes intended to provide laughs often result in either immature body jokes or are offensive. While it’s wonderful to see LGBT and transvestite characters receiving screen-time that is more celebratory than depressive, they are quickly ridiculed by a narrative that is desperately attempting to be fun and hip while disguising archaic ideological judgement. For example, ‘Rich Boy’ Anthony’s infatuation with transgendered ‘Double Eyes’ begins humorously during a bathroom error, yet a pornographic video reduces her to a mere body prop from which the character never recovers. ‘Poor Girl’s’ servicing of ‘clients’ also begins well, yet upon meeting transvestite ‘Big Razor Sis’ the duo compete for feminine superiority and acceptance through performance that clearly had only one winner from the start. Racism also appears in the form of an absentee English teacher who not only has sexual liaisons with students but has also infected them with an STD. In these and other scenes it is never the denizens of No Use High that pass judgement but rather the narrative that frequently posits such figures in society as shocking ‘deviants’ to be laughed at and from which comedy can be derived.

Yet ironically the most bizarre – and frankly perverse – plot involves the respected figure of the principal. The mystery involves female students who were previously sexually adventurous, but after visiting the principal’s office become studious nerds with little interest in boys. To achieve this, the principal takes a glob of green material (presumably jade) from his mouth and, using his finger, inserts it into the students’ vagina, for which they are thankful and grateful. As prior to such scenes the principal and his methods were barely a blip on the narrative radar, this tangent conveys not only a ‘tacked on’ sensibility but also a middle-aged male fantasy of intimacy with sexually willing high school girls. The resulting battle, which sees students wafting their genital ‘power’ at the source of the disturbance, is a surreal scenario that seemingly attempts to circumvent prior scenes through oddity, and additionally offers precious little closure on the array of narrative threads that lead to such a juncture.

'Poor Girl' meets a transvestite client for teenage frolics

‘Poor Girl’ meets a transvestite client for teenage frolics

It is particularly difficult to discuss Dasepo Naughty Girls in terms of acting, as the film is intended to be an over-acted and surrealist take on high school life. The extremely limiting screen-time bestowed upon most of the protagonists also hinders proceedings as most characters barely reappear after their initial introduction.

Amongst the handful of characters that recur, it is  ‘Poor Girl’ who appears the most and as such carries Dasepo Naughty Girls on her shoulders. This is actually in the films’ favor as the actress is incredibly talented, managing to find the ambiguous fine line between tongue-in-cheek humour, offbeat comedy, and genuine acting. Kim Ok-bin gives the film much needed focus and grounding as well as a heart and soul, and her presence is sorely missed when other protagonists are followed. Her scenes with ‘Big Razor Sis’ are in stark contrast to the poverty inherent in her private life, yet the actress is convincing in each and every scenario.

'Poor Girl's' love for 'Rich Boy' Anthony is continually unrequited

‘Poor Girl’s’ love for ‘Rich Boy’ Anthony is continually unrequited

Verdict:

Dasepo Naughty Girls is stylized entertainment, one that uses imaginative colour and camera techniques to provide fun and quirky originality within a national cinema that tends to focus on more standardized storytelling. Yet the stylization cannot hide the vacuous nature of the narrative which simultaneously celebrates and derides the protagonists within, and which also fails to merge the various threads into a coherent whole.

★★☆☆☆

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16 year old concubine So-ok must be impregnated for Sir Jo to win the gambit

Untold Scandal (스캔들 – 조선남녀상열지사) – ★★★★☆

Untold Scandal (스캔들 - 조선남녀상열지사)

Untold Scandal (스캔들 – 조선남녀상열지사)

The French classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been adapted for the screen several times, including the critically acclaimed Dangerous Liaisons (1988) which employed a traditionalist approach, as well as a successful contemporary teenage variation with Cruel Intentions (1999).

Untold Scandal relocates the infamous text to 18th century Korea during the Joseon Dynasty, an era of strict Confucianism and the emergence of then-illegal Catholicism, a time when men were allowed multiple wives and concubines and women had precious few rights. As such, the French literature so concerned with scandal is transplanted astonishingly well, and aside from rather uninspiring direction, is an entertaining tale in old Korea.

Sir Jo-won (Bae Yong-joon (배용준) is the most famous lothario in the land, a man of ill-repute who passes his days bedding the local women and painting images of his conquests. His cousin and rival Lady Jo (Lee Mi-sook (이미숙), is a manipulative and vindictive woman of aristocracy who, upon learning of her husband’s desire for 16 year old concubine So-ok (Lee So-yeon (이소연), forges a gambit with her sexually predatory cousin; take the virtue of the concubine and impregnate her, and in exchange Sir Jo-won can have the prize he’s always coveted – a night with Lady Jo. Should he fail however, Sir Jo must spend the rest of his days as a monk. Considering the bet to be unchallenging, Sir Jo raises the stakes by including bedding the most virtuous widow in the land, Lady Jung (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연), and sets out to fulfill the task and receive the conquest he has always desired.

Lady Jo and Sir Jo-won create the scandalous bet

Lady Jo and Sir Jo-won create the scandalous bet

18th century Korea is wonderfully realized in Untold Scandal, and the costume and set designers deserve praise for their painstaking attention to detail throughout the film. The costumes in particular form a major proponent of the mise-en-scene, as the style and colour schemes of the traditional hanboks worn are indicative of the personality of the wearer; the seductive yet dangerous reds worn by Lady Jo are in stark contrast to the calm and natural blues worn by Lady Jung, and as such protagonists convey a wealth of emotion and anticipation through their appearance alone. Director Lee J-yong captures the world of Untold Scandal competently and with sincerity, yet his style is often bland and uninspiring, framing the action as if it were on stage rather than celluloid. Furthermore, the director’s apparent preference for mid-shots tends to detract from establishing the beauty of the era with long-shots or, crucially, the intense seduction between the protagonists with close-ups. However, the performances of the cast more than redress these shortcomings as their provocative and flirtatious encounters with each other are palpable.

The narrative is, as expected from the source material, a captivating and enthralling tale and the inclusion of features inherently Korean serve to enhance the story in a varied and interesting fashion. The strict Confucian ideology of the era serves to make Sir Jo-won’s bet more difficult to achieve, as Lady Jung initially will only communicate through a proxy for fear of sullying her reputation as a virtuous woman. As was commonplace in the Joseon Dynasty, men were within their rights to have a wife as well as several concubines, roles which Lady Jo and So-ok embody quite naturally and serve to give an alternative perspective on their troublesome relationship. Rather than letters or a diary, Sir Jo-won paints his conquests in the style of Joseon painters adding authenticity as well as a unique spin on the evidence of his philandering. Combined, these organic features establish Untold Scandal as unmistakably Korean, with the contrasting approach conveying the seductions and betrayals as markedly different from other adaptations.

Sir Jo-won must seduce the most virtuous woman in the land, Lady Jung

Sir Jo-won must seduce the most virtuous woman in the land, Lady Jung

As is often the case, Jeon Do-yeon is incredible in her portrayal of Lady Jung and outshines the rest of the cast. Her performance evolves from icy to humble with deft skill, although the jump from humble to loving requires further suspension of disbelief. Such criticism is also applicable to Bae Yong-joon as Sir Jo-won, who is never convincing in his declarations of love for Lady Jung. As a casanova, Bae Yong-joon performs well despite lacking the charisma and subtlety expected of the role, raising doubts as to how he is able to seduce so many woman. For example the night in which he beds concubine So-ok is not achieved through mastery of seduction or language, but through force. The scene is conveyed as rape rather than alluring temptation, and undermines Sir Jo-won’s character enormously. Despite her limited role, Lee So-yeon (이소연) portrays the naivety of So-ok wonderfully, and it’s a shame more dramatic scenes, such as the ramifications of her actions, were not produced to convey the shattering of her innocence. So-ok’s mentor Lady Jo is captivatingly performed by Lee Mi-sook (이미숙), who seemingly seethes with vengeance and pride. Lee Mi-sook not only wonderfully conveys, but clearly also relishes, every ounce of tension, manipulation and seduction she creates in every scene. Her character is somewhat limited however in that there are scant few scenes of her actually displaying her enticing prowess, which serves to make her threatening demeanor slightly shallow.

16 year old concubine So-ok must be impregnated for Sir Jo to win the gambit

16 year old concubine So-ok must be impregnated for Sir Jo to win the gambit

Verdict:

Untold Scandal is a delightfully scandalous and entertaining film about seduction and betrayal in 18th century Korea, with beautiful costume design that adds elegance and authenticity to the mise-en-scene. The adaptation works incredibly well and offers an interestingly unique perspective on the source material. However the direction by Lee J-young is often bland and uninspiring due to a general lack of technical variation, failing to fully capitalise on the lustful charisma between the protagonists, which are joyous performances despite their occasional limitations. Untold Scandal is highly engaging and enjoyable, and a fascinating take on an old classic.

 ★★★★☆

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