Filmmakers are subject to the intensity of industry and the marketplace as much as any commodified artform, however, films have the unique privilege of being decisively ideological documents. Alongside their respective filmmakers, the politics within an auteur’s filmography undergo immense and staggering change. From Godard to John Huston, filmmakers like us all, for better or worse, grow up. Jang Joon-hwan in spite of his brief oeuvre makes an interesting case study for the transition and alterations a filmmaker’s style will endure under the pressures of industry and audience. Save the Green Planet! (2003) and 1987: When the Day Comes (2017) represent two opposite ends of his career with the former being his debut and the latter being his most recent filmic effort. Whereas Save the Green Planet! specifically antagonizes the neoliberalist agenda, 1987: When the Day Comes is an explication of the pure intentions of the South Korean citizens and the eruption of desire for democratic process that would ultimately usher in a globalized era where South Korea can prosper financially, however, at what cost? The film fails to accurately answer that question and perhaps that is not it’s goal. The change in tone from the radical, pained nihilism of Save the Green Planet! has devolved into a stylized patriotism, which while admirable in it’s rendering of the noble drive for independence, falls short of being critical and thoughtful about the outcome of this tumultuous period in South Korea’s history.
Save the Green Planet! is many things all at once, crossing a myriad of genres. This is not uncommon in South Korean cinema as movies often “not only shift genres but follow this shift with change in tone”1. The film is not content to remain confined in a single genre and what begins as an abduction thriller quickly becomes a science fiction-torture film that is less sadistic than I Saw The Devil or Park Chan-wook’s segment in Three Extremes… as in those films torture is a tool, a menacing debasing technique of an almost clinical precision that challenges the psychology of the victim as much as it does the captor. In Save the Green Planet!, however, the process of torture is depicted as futile and impotent, Zizek describes the use of military force on the civillian body in similar terms: “The more he reacts, the more he shows his power, the more his impotence is confirmed”4. The main character Byeong-gu is an amphetamine and grief-addled young man who is convinced that aliens called Andromedans are taking over the Earth and killing humans. Much like the aformentioned torture-features this is a revenge film at it’s core. Byeong-gu kidnaps the head of a chemical company responsible for the death of his mother to avenge her by foiling the alien plot and saving the world. As is revealed later in the film Byeong-gu is both crazy and very correct about the alien conspiracy, though he fails in his task, the human means of violence and interrogation only reflect our inability to save our green planet. How are we supposed to save ourselves when the only operative language we have in which to interact with the truth is through a method of physical brutality and intimidation? The film posits that we won’t save the Earth if we continue down our current trajectory of cruelty and barbarism.
Through its mythological origin story, the film argues,, that what once made us the Earth’s leading species is now an active detriment to the sustainability of our enterprise. The viciousness which led us to domination was also the same thing that angered our creators the Andromendans into feeling that we were ungrateful and dangerous. The film takes on a double-revenge at this point, not only is Byeong-gu seeking vengeance but so are the aliens against their troubled children: the human race. Though the film argues that to become powerful both as a human or as an extraterrestrial can only be accomplished by becoming a tyrant. Byeong-gu becomes tyrannical in his own sense as he murders countless humans in order to enact his revenge, selfishly demolishing the potential for life, development and change in individuals in the same sense that the Andromendans destroy the promise of human life in the film’s final moments. To control is to submit oneself to desolation and domination, and the neoliberal world order “…serves ineluctably to resuscitate and reinforce the sophistic belief that the happiest are those who commit crimes with impunity…”3. Byeong-gu is not happy though, nor are the aliens, everyone is trapped in a parasitic relationship of antagonism and hate, their miscalculated efforts to “avenge” does nothing but ensure the erasure of history and the ushering in of an era of post-history best exemplified by the film’s ending where after the world having exploded a television floats through space and stops just in front of the camera to show images of Byeong-gu’s childhood flashing by. Memories and media are inextricably linked, this could be seen as the moment where “the character’s life flashes before their eyes”, except delivered in a subversive and subtle manner. This is in fact Byeong-gu’s life but the world is gone, there’s no one there to witness it with. Joon-hwan argues we have nothing more important than our bodies and uses the Earth as a metaphor for a collective celestial body of humanity, that even if there are “bullies” and “tyrants” at the top, our little rock is worth saving, and without it, we have nothing, just remnants swimming in nothingness, lingering among space like a specter.
1987: When the Day Comes is both obviously less radical and more conventional of a work than Save the Green Planet! as not only does it depict actual events, namely the democratic revolution of 87’ but the film also finds Joon-hwan revealing more coherent and conformist aspects of his filmography. The film is a panoramic tear-jerking biopic, akin to Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam in that it centralizes the story around a specific cultural moment in order to probe the interior of it’s characters lives, however, this is notably diluted in 1987, instead of close proximity Joon-hwan demands there be a distance between his character’s and their motivations beyond the immediate revolutionary situation. He struggles to articulate these characters as more than political, even the characters who engage in frivolity like the Yeon-Hee character who just wants a boyfriend for the first half of the film is not spared engagement in political upheaval; it’s not enough for these characters to be tangentially related to this story, they need to be active participants which makes the film a bit of a Forrest Gump-esque forcing characters and developments into crucial historical moments.
The other issue posed by this film, especially in relation to Save the Green Planet! is the film’s seeming simultaneous endorsement of both globalization and democracy. Whereas the politics of Save the Green Planet! are pragmatically and painfully nihilistic in the assessment of the Earth’s lifespan, 1987 almost seems willfully ignorant by comparison, preferring to view the historical moment of 87’ as solely a success for South Korean citizens in spite of ushering a new era of neoliberalism and conglomerate control that would irretrievably alter South Korean society. The spontaneity of the political moment allowed for such an event and drama to awaken, Joon-hwan captures the excitement and collective energy of a revolution but fails to articulate the contradictions and conflicts that make these exceptional events so transfixing and necessary. 1987 is a case study in the profound difficulty of cinematizing something as profound and complex as political revolution.
Save the Green Planet! is also a film about revolution. The film shows the struggle of a lone, damaged intellect as they try to save the world and the extremity that they are willing to submit themselves and their loved ones too in order to save it. The film argues that betraying the instincts of our own kind is necessary in order to save everyone, that to abandon our commitment to selfishness, evil and wickedness is the very salvation of our souls, however, this is never reconciled with our proclivity and impulse towards these traits. Frankly Save the Green Planet! states that this thing we call the vicious human spirit is an unnatural mutation and in it’s own fiction pins this trait on our own hunger for power, in Nietszchian terms, it’s that human, all too human thing that drives us, “…confronted by the dilemma of having to choose between the preservative potentialities of becoming – alien, which in this case amounts to becoming – tyrant, or an unconditional fidelity to human obligations”3. In this commitment to the affairs of humankind Byeong-gu is alienated from society, however, the only method by which he has to achieve power is through degradation and the visceral effect of violence. In 1987 the power of collectivism and togetherness succeeded in an even grander revolution where Byeong-gu was limited in his possibilities, the opportunities of togetherness are expansive and durable.
The science fiction genre occupies a prevalent position in the media landscape, it’s consistently one of the most trodden grounds by which to access our anxieties and fears about our future, and our remorse and nostalgia for inklings of the past. The genre itself is intoxicating and transporting, Save the Green Planet! deconstructs many of these tropes by presenting an amphetamine riddled aesthetic most akin to Miike’s Ichi the Killer and Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels in the mutilated digital photography, superimpositions, upside down shots and rapid cuts. This is grimy, dirty science fiction. The torture chamber that Byeong-gu works in is poorly lit and seemingly always wet, humid and damp. The alien spaceship in the finale is an organic mass, breathing and lumpy, unlike the sleek visions of UFO’s often presented in the media. The tortured alien is nailed to a cross, obviously drawing from Christian imagery, however, Joon-Hwan adds another layer to this image by adding a series of arms to the chair he’s strapped to that make the tyrannical evil appear like the goddess Shiva (the goddess of both creation and destruction, the allusion to the alien’s role is clear). This merging of various cultural imagery is meant to evoke the divinity of tyrants, dating back to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the deification of fascicsm is here played for extremely dark laughs. 1987: When The Day Comes is similarly playful with the standards and confines of genre just in a more subdued fashion. Joon-Hwan builds a 70’s thriller complete with procedural elements of the news media and the military resistance while almost every scene features some kind of handheld camera and tight zooms that frame characters from the shoulder-up in close up. Save the Green Planet! Has become a cult classic while 1987: When the Day Comes was a box-office success, the historical model for Joon-Hwan was able to provide more success than a fantasy could. Both are ironic approaches, however, by making a science fiction film that is so thoroughly unappealing to mainstream audiences both thematically and visually he’s effectively decommodified his own work in order to “unmask(s) the readiness to unleash annihilating power as a slavish prerogative that turns its wielders into something neither human or divine but alien to both”3. Joon-Hwan sees destruction as fundamentally incongruous with the human soul but in 1987 there is an undercurrent of hope in the youth and potential for immense change in the future. Whereas Save the Green Planet! searches for cynicism in the future, 1987 seeks optimism in the past by way of the pessimistic and pragmatic aesthetic of 70’s cinema.
Joon-Hwan focuses solely on the events of the 87’s uprising and does not comment on the resulting South Korean society that has emerged from this eruption. Though democracy is undoubtedly a positive, Joon-Hwan, in spite of being obviously outspoken against the neoliberal order in Save the Green Planet!, avoids commenting on a globalized and capitalized South Korea. Given how political Save the Green Planet! is, you’d expect the same filmmaker to have more to say about the last thirty years of South Korean history, however, 1987 is decidedly less political than his debut regardless of the events it depicts. The film is actually a testament to the immense difficulty of creating a mainstream, studio product about the intricate network of political revolution. To depict a massive human drama like this is to allow the personal to subsume the political, which is exactly what happened in 1987. By centralizing the narrative around individuals with varying stakes advocates only that people should be political, not necessarily in any particular way. Simply put: that democracy is something worth being political about.
While Save the Green Planet! makes use of a post-history with it’s ending, 1987 locates itself within history. The former implies that post-history is all but a guarantee if we continue on our current path and furthermore something that we ourselves will not experience, just a memory on the lips of the cosmos. Save the Green Planet! is an earnest plea for the salvation of our Earth while 1987 is a genuine reminder of the power in unity and connection. Despite the elements of these films that suggest a cinematic trickster in the reversal’s and contortions of worn aesthetics, they actually reveal a filmmaker with a deep compassion for human folly and political solidarity, even if, at times, it appears to spring from some persistent naïveté.
Jang Joon-hwan has a brief oeuvre consisting of three films, however, his films remain remarkably singular both in their diversity and approach. He positions himself as a complicated auteur who does not rely on repetition or stylistic consistency to define his cinematic gaze and his approach to heavy themes like apocalypse and revolution. While Save the Green Planet! remains a seminal entry in the Korean New Wave alongside films by Park Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong and is even receiving an American remake from acclaimed filmmaker Ari Aster, Joon-hwan’s name remains a footnote in the movement, and worse yet Save the Green Planet! is often thought of as a novelty act amongst other filmmakers who would go on to have more consistent careers. Joon-hwan is an auteur worthy of the best of them, not simply a cult phenomenon but a thoughtful filmmaker concerned with the grandiose and limitless possibilities of a future (or lack thereof).
- Pablo Utin, Sliding through genres: The Slippery Structure in South Korean films, Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, 2016, pp. 45-58, DOI: 10.1080/17564905.2016.1171566
- Blythe Worthy, Steve Choe, Sangjoon Lee, Benjamin Nickl, Emma Rayward and Lee Sung-Ae , December 2020, Vol. 39, No. , pp. 149-190 Australia New Zealand American Studies Association, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26973006
- Paik Peter, “From Utopia to Apocalypse Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe”, March 18th 2020, pp. 71-92 University of Michigan Press
- Žižek, Slavoj The Sublime Object of Ideology 1989, pp. 176, London