Save the Green Planet (2003)

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 (on which, see below). 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 in 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. To some extent, the preceding basement torture scenes even 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 in the torture scenes needs to be just that, if the actual violence in the documentary montage 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. According to Sellar, the estranged world established by the cognitive premise becomes a pretext 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.



Archives and Origins: the Material and Vernacular Cultures of Photography in India

Read more of my piece published in Trans Asia Photography Review


The number of doctors I have seen in the past two weeks since the health crisis that landed me in ER.


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A slice of the photo album page of a first cousin on my other FB account (reserved for extended family). He’s from Benares which is also my birth place where my late maternal grandfather, originally from Swamimalai, Tamil Nadu, was a prominent Vedic scholar all his life – Vishwanatha Shastri from Hanuman Ghat. I have not seen this cousin since childhood and he still lives in my grandfather’s house. I have fond memories as a 7 or 8 year old, of a palatial but modestly furnished house with many rooms, filled with Hindu pilgrims who came to Benares for all kinds of ceremonies; a granary full of sacks and sacks of rice and other grains; exciting visits to the ghat for bathing in the river; a kitchen where my grandmother and aunts cooked over the fire in big pots for a large family – very large when everyone was visiting, which meant my grandparents, their 4 sons and 5 daughters and about 50 grandchildren; cows right outside on the cobble-stoned गली that would arch their heads back to have their dewlaps petted; the fresh smell of grass and cow dung, which smelled more like grass than cow dung; the regular visits of a snake charmer who would let us, the children, hold the snake and its little slithering snakelet offspring in our hands in exchange for two cups of rice in payment; really delicious Banarasi kachori; a bazaar where I remember being fascinated by little toy boats – pop pop boats – that would go round and round on buckets of water, propelled by vegetable oil burners; kite-flying on the terrace; older female cousins who mysteriously spent a number of days isolated from the rest of the family in a room upstairs in the terrace every now and then; elaborate stagings of the Rasa Lila by all of the children, choreographed by the older ones among them, with elaborate costumes, for the elders; and a neighboring wealthy UP family whose wealthy sons would come back home past midnight tottering down the road very drunk, very naked and shouting obscenities, the children among us rushed back inside so we couldn’t stare down from the verandah, my older female cousins back on to the verandah in no time to watch and giggle.

That past seems distant now but unlikely things can trigger elaborate memories. In this case, my cousin is a staunch भाजपा supporter, whose FB posts are long Hindi screeds – and jokes – targeting Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. Can you tell? The screen-capture’s combination of masculine bravado, religious iconography, icons of neo-liberal lifestyles, post-photoshop internet erotica, and a distinct brand of homilies for everyday life,  ought to be termed “Facebook Values” (why not? We already have Hallmark Holidays).


I posted the following on a social networking site but it seems worthwhile to post it here as well. I now regret not carrying a notebook to the screening but these are things I remembered – with all attendant misrepresentations and inaccuracies – that I jotted down as soon as I got back:

“Hi all, I’m a professor of Bollywood. I’ve written and published a lot of pieces on Bollywood. Some of you may know that Bollywood is now 100 years old. Woo hoo! Bollywood is a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood. This movie has great historical value. It shows that Bollywood singing and dancing goes a long way back. Enjoy the movie.”

Those, in effect, were all the points made today, in a brief introduction by someone – not me! – introducing Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948), at SIFF: an absolutely phenomenal, enchanting 2 hours and 40 minutes, with a frame narrative of a guy pitching the main story to a film producer, about an artist struggling to create an art school (the story is rejected by the producer and the movie ends on a note of despair). The movie was surprising for a variety of reasons. I didn’t know it was multilingual- Bengali and Malayalam were among the first languages for the spoken dialogue in the movie. I wasn’t prepared for the movie’s Kismet (1943) style engagement with nationalism, albeit much more sustained than Kismet and much more critical (incorporating Gandhi and Nehru at one point as empty words by sloganeering-politicians). Nor for its extended sequence of the deadening effects of factory labor reminiscent of Metropolis. Or its light and lively satire. In one scene, a group of Maharajas watch Uday Shankar’s extended ballet while a member of the theater monitors a tall barometer that measures their responses: enchanting, sex appeal, boring, so-so. In another, a character explains that the reason a dance troupe is mistaken by a character as African (in fact it’s a Naga dance) is because of Hollywood’s pernicious construction of the non-West. Then there’s its economy of expression – one of the last shots of the film, when we return to the frame narrative, is an overhead static shot of a street that indicates just enough of urban life with the movement on the edges of the frame of people, bicycles, a black car, and a street seller of food on a cart. There’s the rhythm of dance and editing that followed the movie’s themes: split-screens, dissolves, super-impositions for the dream and fantasy sequences, breathless montage for many of the movie’s most powerful critiques of modernity, and a combination of long shots, overhead shots and close-ups for the more obviously diegetic performances of the dance sequences (including a drum scene that anticipates Chandralekha). The last hour or so of the movie was a sequence of dances – Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri, Naga, Bhangra, and you can also see traces and/or variations of the cultural politics of post-independence India as the movie tries to craft an understanding of the popular that excludes itself. Perhaps most thrilling was the movie’s ability to completely blur the backstage drama into the dance performances till the events of the plot and the dances performed in that world, continue each other’s functions, till we can’t tell if an interaction is happening on stage or off-stage.


Somnifères and Idlis

It is taking far too long for me to get out of this jet lag. By 7 pm, I’m fading. My eyes want to shut down and I slip into effortless sleep. Except that I’m up by midnight and then wide awake for the next few hours. So I forced myself, two nights before, to stay awake till about 10 pm and took a sleeping pill I bought at the local pharmacy, Donormyl, so I wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night. The sleeping pill caused a new problem: it made me want to sleep all the time, even during the day. I lay in bed working in the morning yesterday and by 11 am, had dozed off to sleep and didn’t wake up till 2 pm. The same thing has happened today. I woke up feeling bright and energetic but shortly after coffee and a slice of toast, I wanted to do nothing but doze off to sleep.

Yesterday, during the few hours when I felt awake- and hungry – I took the no. 7 to the 10th arrondisement to an area known as Little Jaffna. There I ate idlis at Saravana Bhavan, where it was a marvel to see Tamil waiters conversing in Tamil, Indian English and (presumably French) French. Little Pondicherry, a restaurant, enticed customers to try standard Indian fare as well. One of the passages on Rue du Faubourg St-Denis comprised, almost entirely, Indian restaurants (with a North Indian man screaming matherchod at someone else walking away) and barber shops. An elderly gentleman at Saravana Bhavan ate idlis, ordered filter coffee and gleefully swiped at his smartphone, telling the waiter in Tamil that he could now read The Hindu sitting in Paris.

I ate, took the train back and barely made it awake.

Six and a half

The number of months I have been away from home this year