Aliens may look like they’re from another planet, but that’s just cover. H.G. Welles knew this when he wrote “War of the Worlds” — his insectile ETs were nothing more than metaphors for British colonialism. Welles, the English leftist, had seen the enemy and he was us.
“Save the Green Planet” takes this idea and goes giddily to places I dare not fully describe. Not so much science fiction as an ultra-black comedy/horror/thriller about science fiction, this first feature from South Korean writer/director Jun-hwan Jeong steals with insane glee, including blatant swipes and homages to, among many others, “The King of Comedy,” “Reservoir Dogs, “Psycho,” “E.T.”, possibly “Sleuth,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Fight Club” and definitely “2001.” In other contexts, this might be tiresome, just so much showing off or even laziness – but in this specific context, it’s actually the point.
The crazed, heroic antihero of “Save the Green Planet” is Byeong-gu (Ha-kyun Shin), a young Rupert Pupkin by-way-of “The X-Files,” who believes he’s on a mission to save the earth from mysterious aliens who walk amongst us. One of the worst of these supposed alien scum is Kang Man-shik (Yun-shik Baek), the head of a giant chemical company that the hapless yet menacing Byeong holds responsible for past misfortunes.
So, aided by his zaftig, oddly graceful gal-pal Su-ni (Jeong-min Hwang), he kidnaps Kang. His plan is to perform God-knows-what tortures on his captive to get him to reveal God-knows-what information. Byeong is more than willing to torture and eventually kill his prisoner in ways that may involve massive jolts of electricity, bees and a terrifying, dildo-like device. Humanity must be saved at all costs, but the interrogation is continually interrupted.
It seems that the shackled executive is a pretty tough customer himself, and poor Su-ni is having some second thoughts about her relationship with Byeong. Meanwhile, a disgraced veteran cop and a fresh-faced college-boy rookie (Jae-yong Lee and Ju-hyeon Lee), are on his trail. Sure, they’re a couple of walking cop-movie stereotypes, but that doesn’t make them any less of a problem.
Initially, the film is pitched as mildly transgressive, yet fanciful, slapstick. But the tone slowly changes as Byeong’s tragic past comes to light and the disturbing threats to the nasty yet vulnerable Kang become ever more explicit. As the suspense level increases with a series of frequently hilarious Hitchcockian set pieces, the film’s heart becomes evident even as it twists our sense of reality. By the end…well, let’s just say there’s plenty to talk afterwards.
“Save the Green Planet” showcases outstanding performances by all three leads, and a strong, though somewhat overly David Fincher-like, atmosphere from cinematographer Kyung-Pyo Hong and art directors Geun-yeong Jang and Kyeong-hie Kim. Musically, the film is a treat, with a terrific Bernard Herrmann-meets-John Williams style score by Dong-jun Lee and a punk rock version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” underneath the opening credits.
However you interpret the last half-hour, there’s no denying that this movie has big issues on its mind. As I write this, Korea is the one place on Earth where an all-out nuclear war is most likely. “Save the Green Planet” may look like an ironic, jet black comedy — and it succeeds brilliantly on that level — but in it’s sad and wistful heart, it’s a completely sincere call for saving the Earth.