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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Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) – ★★★★☆

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Anyone even remotely aware of Korean cinema understands that the theme of revenge is commonplace. There are, of course, a great number of socio-cultural reasons as to why vengeance is prevalent. Historically, Japan has brutally colonised Korea several times over the past few centuries. Following the Second World War, the then-military government oppressed the people until an uprising forced change. Then, after a democratic capitalist government took power, the race to catch up with ‘Western’ countries divided the rich and poor to an even greater degree, with traditional values altered and livelihoods destroyed in order to create infrastructure. The theme of revenge is dominant as it undoubtedly provides catharsis for a nation of people whose identity has been in a constant state of instability due to external factors beyond their control.

Director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) explores such notions of revenge in his infamous ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ beginning with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것), and followed by Old Boy (올드보이) and  Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) respectively.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is concerned not only with revenge but the very basis and cyclical nature which it evolves into. Ryu (Sin Ha-gyoon (신하균) is deaf and mute, and lives a meager existence working in a factory. His sister (Lim Ji-eun 임지은) suffers from kidney disease and is in urgent need of a transplant. Fired from his job and distressed that his sister may die, Ryu turns to the black market and strikes a deal – he will give all his money and donate his own kidney, and in exchange he will receive a healthy kidney for his sister. Yet, when Ryu wakes up after the operation, he finds his kidney, and his money, have been stolen. Worse still, thanks to a miraculous donation a kidney is now available at the hospital, but without his savings the operation cannot commence.

Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Ryu wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Desperate, Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona (배두나) scheme to kidnap the daughter of his former boss Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho (송강호) for ransom. With the transplant money secure, the duo plan to release the girl and restore the equilibrium; yet when Ryu’s sister discovers the plot she cannot take the shame and burden, and commits suicide. Ryu and the boss’s daughter bury her body by a riverbank, but the youngster falls into the water and drowns. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance then evolves into two separate narratives of revenge; Ryu’s quest to hunt down the black market organ dealers, and Dong-jin’s desire for vengeance over his dead daughter. Each man has lost someone special, someone who helped to define their identity and give them purpose and subsequently, as each man follows his agenda, their humanity becomes lost amid their barbarous acts of vengeance. Both Ryu and Dong-jin are good men, but are transformed into murderers due to external economic and medical forces, adding sympathy and poignancy as they lose their identity with each act of violence. The evolution of the protagonists are superbly conveyed by Sin Ha-gyoon and Song Kang-ho (송강호), the latter in particular giving a towering performance transforming from emotional businessman to hardened killer. Neither man understands the futility of their vengeance nor that the escalation of violence produces more victims that demand justice.

Dong-jin (박덩진) transforms from father to murderer

Dong-jin transforms from father to murderer

The evolution of the protagonists is masterfully constructed by director Park Chan-wook, who expertly composes each shot to reinforce the sympathy, and the insanity, of their actions. The cinematography is incredible in places, particularly in the recurrence of aerial shots that emphasize the loneliness of the men and the fragility of their humanity. Additionally, the utilisation of space and depth of field highlights their terrible position, both literally and figuratively, in horrific environments and circumstances. Ryu’s world is conveyed effectively and dramatically due to his inability to hear, as alternating POV shots establish how silent and disadvantaged his world is compared to those around him adding yet another layer of compassion to his predicament. Park Chan-wook’s presentation of violence is thoughtful and initially restrained, gradually building tension in order for graphic scenes to have the utmost impact.

Director Park Chan-wook's recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Director Park Chan-wook’s recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Verdict:

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a fascinating exploration into the nature of revenge and violence, highlighting how two seemingly ‘good’ men can evolve into psychotic killers when they are bereaved. However, further exploration of the socio-economic problems that created the black market organ trade and the lay-offs at the factory, could have enhanced the poignancy of their predicaments further, as would have additional characterization before the crises developed. Yet despite this, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a riveting and emotionally charged debate on the escalation and futility of vengeance, and how the loss of a loved one can become poison when the path of revenge is taken.

★★★★☆

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