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A review of Tartan's 'Asia Extreme' DVD release.
This is a South Korean film from 2003. It was released in the UK during the period when Western cineastes were discovering there was more to Far Eastern films than men jumping over cars in slow motion firing two guns at once. Films from Thailand, Japan and Korea hit the West like a weird, filmic hurricane. They made the majority of Hollywood product look positively anaemic, so suddenly companies like Tartan were releasing everything they could get their hands on (and rather patronisingly lumping together films from Japan, Korea, China as if they were all the same place). Some truly remarkable films were released; so were some real clunkers. Save The Green Planet is a film I have mixed feelings about, which I suspect is the intended effect - it's impossible to categorise, but that isn't necessarily a good thing.
A deranged young man, Lee Byung-gu, and his seemingly retarded girlfriend, Sooni, kidnap a wealthy industrialist, Kang Man-shik. They're convinced he's an alien from Andromeda who is going to destroy the world. The police try desperately to find the missing VIP, while he engages in a battle of wits with his captors.
The main problem I have with the film is that it doesn't seem to know what it is. The premise is broadly comic (and the DVD cover suggests this is going to be a wacky comedy). And there is a lot of humour, especially in the early stages - the kidnappers look ridiculous in their anti-alien get-up, and Byung-gu's beliefs are a laughable mix of the X-Files and David Icke. But when they start torturing their victim it becomes more difficult to laugh. And while there are some heartrending moments that *could* fit within the context of a comedy (it worked for Chaplin, after all), there's too much that's genuinely upsetting.
A sequence of flashbacks to Byung-gu's childhood about two-thirds of the way through is emotionally harrowing, and it's very difficult to find anything else funny after it (the film constantly tries to lurch between comedy and nastiness). By this time, the film is more akin to Se7en than you'd imagine from its marketing. There's an alternative-history-of-the-world sequence which starts off like a parody of the kinds of things Scientologists believe, but which ends up parading real Holocaust footage across the screen. As an antidote to the hippie naivety of 2001 it's effective, but it leaves good taste far, far behind.
It's possible that this flip-flopping of tone is par for the course in Korean culture. All I have to go on is a handful of other Korean films I've seen, and this might be more representative of the mainstream than they are. But a lot of this feels like craziness for the sake of it. Part of the fun of watching films from 'weird' foreign directors, from Miike Takashi to Coffin Joe, is in trying to figure out which bits are the filmmaker being odd and which bits just seem strange due to cultural differences. Save The Green Planet feels like a film that's trying to be too many things at once, like a showreel of all the wacky ideas the director's ever had. This doesn't make for a completely satisfying experience.
But that's not to say it's a bad film. Some of the humour is very effective, black though it is (there's a fantastic bit involving bees). As with other Korean films, it's shot beautifully and made with a visual flair that you just don't seem to get in the West right now. The way film is used to tell a story is different and far more exciting (again, what seems novel to me could be hackneyed and unoriginal in Korea). You might remember how excited everyone got about Quentin Tarantino back in the early 90s - the unfettered brilliance we all thought we saw in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction is commonplace in a lot of the Asian films that make it to the UK. They have that same exhilarating quality.
The acting is all good, the music is nice (and used well) and the plot has enough twists and surprises to be engaging right the way through. It's just the film's lurching through different moods that bugs me.
As is so often the case with Tartan, we get more extras than anyone is likely to be interested in. There's a director's commentary (as ever, subtitled commentaries playing over subtitled films are a bit tricky). He admits that he was trying to befuddle the audience, but doesn't give a satisfactory explanation as to why. There's also an (unsubtitled) trailer that makes the film seem a lot funnier than it is.
And then there's a whole extra disk of stuff that just isn't that great. There are eight documentaries about various aspects of production, from make-up to special effects, which range from 5 minutes to half an hour. There are also eight interviews with (mostly) the director, which often replicate material in the commentary. But there's nothing special about any of these. There are a few 'deleted scenes', which usually turn out to be individual shots cut from existing scenes, but are reasonably interesting, I guess. And there's a three-minute student film of the director's, a cute little stop-motion animation. I could easily have lived without any of the second disk; the film is not substantial enough to warrant that level of detail.
Still, it's good that Save the Green Planet was released in this country. It's all over the place and is wacky for the sake of it, but it has enough verve to be worth a look. The director, Joon Hwan-jang, doesn't seem to have made anything else; hopefully he will. Not for the squeamish, but you can get this from amazon for about £8.