I’m once again blown away by Korean cinema. Save the Green Planet is science fiction, masquerading as horror/thriller, masquerading as science fiction.
I’ve seen Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002), I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay (2006), The Host (2013), and Yesterday (2002), all science fiction films that speak to the promises and perils of science fiction cinema in South Korea. What I had not bargained for in this movie was the horror/thriller genre component that occupies a significant portion of the movie and compels a rethinking of the movie’s generic debts.
A disturbed young man, with a devoted tightrope walker serving as his female love interest and accomplice, has consumed plenty of pulp science-fiction literature and sci-fi b-movies, and is convinced of the presence of aliens about to attack earth during the upcoming lunar eclipse. The man kidnaps the CEO of a corporation because he believes the CEO is an alien. Once the man and his kidnap victim are in his basement, the story rapidly devolves into a cycle of scenes of torture, escape, recapture, and more torture. A detective comes and spends the night at the young man’s house, realizes that he has discovered the kidnapped man, only to be killed before he can save the man. Another young, dogged detective cop (with a careerist, dismissive and incompetent boss) manages to track the CEO down to the basement but is also taken captive.
Our protagonist, as it turns out, is genuinely scary, and yet significantly humanized and rendered sympathetic because of his unfortunate past. The CEO is a total jerk at the movie’s outset before he is kidnapped, but we also obviously wish the torture would end and he will break free alive. The movie divides our sympathies, a necessary element for how the plot will conclude, as well as for the genre elements at play here. The torture scenes are exhausting but fall on the side of suggestion rather than direct depiction (but that’s not saying much given that the method of torture is clearly spelled out for us and that’s disturbing enough).
But in the last quarter of the film, the science fiction returns as an ecological critique that is deeply affecting. Imagery from Kubrick’s 2001‘s Dawn of Man sequence is incorporated into a montage of natural cataclysms and genocidal violence – the holocaust, the war in Bosnia, Vietnam. This montage segment is motivated by the CEO’s last ditch attempt to save himself and the detective by finally confessing that he is indeed an alien and offering a rationale (hence the montage) of what the aliens have in store for humans. In an inspired move, the iconic match-cut from Kubrick’s film that produces cinema’s largest ellipsis of time, never arrives. Instead, before the ape can swing the bone into the sky, the action is interrupted and intercut with the horrific documentary image. The ancient past and the distant future can’t meet. Something else must happen before the past can catch up with the future.
For me, the montage redeemed a film that seemed perilously close to exploitation territory of the Asia Extreme variety. The ecological critique in the montage is standard stuff, by I mean not the footage itself of environmental catastrophe and genocide (although the images are entirely familiar) but its function in filling out the premise of the story as well as the way it is folded into the concluding portion of the movie. Nevertheless, it works in returning us to science fiction territory. We might argue that the preceding basement torture scenes set the stage, or confer plausibility on the vast amplification of scale of torture and suffering in the aforementioned documentary montage sequence; the torture scenes give the montage sequence a power to disturb that it might not have possessed otherwise. At the same time, maybe the scripted suggestion of violence needs to be just that, if actual violence has to have its ability to shock. In this, the movie deftly negotiates the relation between enactment and re-enactment, between authenticity and exemplarity. You can’t have too much authenticity to the enacted violence if you want to offer images of real violence for exemplification. At any rate, in the montage, the earth falling apart, inert masses of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves, faces of people in profound distress, all pummeled at us, meld into each other as earthly matter comes alive as sentient and raging expression, living bodies turn dead, and pain produces people neither alive nor dead.
The montage sequence places pressure on the generic and epistemological limits of science fiction. Is this movie about plausible futures or the horrendous present? Gord Sellar’s discussion of Korean science fiction comes to mind here, for Sellar contrasts films like The Host and Save the Green Planet, with, in his view, less satisfactory ones like Natural City and 2009: Lost Memories. If science fiction (henceforth all quotes are from Sellar’s article) thrives on “cognitive estrangement” (a world that is both radically unlike ours but can nevertheless be constructed from entirely logical, reasoned and even scientific premises that mirror our own world’s ‘operating principles’), some Korean SF films set up the cognitive premises but do not follow those premises through to their implications. The ‘speculative fabulism’ that would employ cognition (reasoning, logic, science), to explore the paradoxes of a science fiction narrative’s enabling premises, is sacrificed in some of the films Sellar critiques. The estranged world established by the cognitive premise becomes a pretext, Sellar argues, in much of Korean SF, for indulging in sentimentality, melodrama, a “trope salad” of random generic elements from SF in which the conventions of SF have to jostle for space with other genres and their conventions. For instance, 2009: Lost Memories, one of the movies criticized by Sellar, is premised on the idea that Japanese nationalist extremists time-travel and reboot the past so that Japanese colonialism runs uninterrupted into the year 2009, instead of ending in 1945. It then takes a Korean hero, born in that alternative timeline, to set things right so that Korea as an independent economic superpower is the outcome in 2009, not a Korea still under Japanese occupation. The movie flouts the internal rules of SF paradoxes (in this case, that of time-travel and ‘causality interference’): if the Japanese extremists are from “this” world, travel to a past and produce an alternative current reality, why is the protagonist born in that alternative timeline and not in this one like his Japanese opponents? Why do the Japanese choose to alter events important for Koreans but not necessarily as instrumental in the longer history of Japanese imperialism? Additionally, 2009‘s narrative essentially restages a past that offers an opportunity to reinforce established nationalist narratives that end up “rehearsing [Korean] victimhood claims” vis-a-vis its colonial past. This is a melodramatic history that fails to interrogate its own enabling premises and those premises’ historiographical possibilities in the cognitive mode, as SF ought to do. It betrays the absence of an “open-mindedness to radical alterity’, in Sellar’s words.
In Save the Green Planet, and this perhaps explains why Sellar references the film positively (but without explanation), the ‘radical alterity’ of the future is already here, now and proximate, and embedded in a diegetic past that includes the young man’s horrific childhood: the father’s accident in a factory that leaves him without a hand; the mother compelled to kill the father for his subsequent abuse of his family, the son’s humiliation by teachers and classmates alike in the school system, his girlfriend’s death at a political protest, and the mother’s vegetative state because of experiments conducted by the pharmaceutical company of which the kidnapped man is CEO. A panoply of industrial, institutional, political and corporate circumstances prefigure the disturbing montage of planetary turmoil. So we are not in a future world; we are in the present, bearing the weight of a past painted by the movie as a scale-jumping malaise that spans the individual, the social and the planetary.
If we follow Sellar, it would be easy to criticize the movie. The expository premise that the CEO is an alien is presented as the belief of a protagonist who seems…a little loopy, even at the outset, with his homemade contraption that is supposed to be a helmet and his black garbage bag plastic sheeting as his space-age costume.
So if recognizable and reasonable premises are essential, the movie already frames those premises as the delusions of a mad man. Then what follows is not a testing of the premises, but their consequences via horror/thriller conventions (this is the torture/captivity/failed rescue portion of the movie). The CEO, desperate to be released, eventually confesses to being an alien and it is his explanation that is accompanied by the montage discussed earlier. The aliens, he claims, were indeed responsible for this young man’s mother’s vegetative state but that was because they were seeking to engineer some modification of the human DNA to save humanity from itself and his mother was the guinea pig. Having given enough indication that this is simply a last-ditch attempt to save his own life, the movie then overturns that conclusion as well with its twist-ending. After the young, psychopathic man has been shot dead, the finally free CEO is beamed up to his alien spaceship and orders the destruction of a planet beyond hope. The concluding image is of the earth shattering to pieces.
The logical and reasonable premise at the heart of science fiction’s cognitive estrangement, is at the very outset undercut in this movie by the protagonist’s derangement and then cruelty. And it opens up a can of worms about the contemporary. Cognition-as-delusion unleashes the unreason at the heart of everyday life. When it turns out that the premise that the CEO is an alien, was correct after all, we are left realizing that we couldn’t possibly arrive at this truth, nor can its paradoxes be tested (for example, to imagine what a future world would be like if the CEO were actually an alien, if the young protagonist failed to eliminate him, and if the aliens were to actually invade), till the horrific present and its equally horrific past, are first fully depicted and explicated. But how can generic purity achieve this purpose? Save the Green Planet seives the conventions of science fiction through a disavowal of the genre’s enabling fictions, and thereby forges a forked path to scientific apocalypse via pathos and horror.
[P.S. We can certainly critique Sellar’s purist understanding of SF as a genre. Indeed, a footnote in his article references The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that book’s cognitive “silliness” that nevertheless yields much for the genre, and the enormous popularity of the book in South Korea. This footnote begs the question of why the ‘trope salad’ silliness of Resurrection of a Little Match Girl should be derided by Sellar as insufficiently armored with intellectual heft (unlike The Matrix to which Resurrection references sporadically), and furthermore, what influence Hitchhiker‘s appeal might have had on the “silliness” of Resurrection.]