Nick Chen delves into the rumours that the American director is redoing Jang Joon-hwan’s 2003 sci-fi comedy about alien conspiracy theories
When Titanic was a monster hit in 1997, it spawned a star in Leonardo DiCaprio – and also a monster rumour. In response to Titanic, an anti-Leonardo DiCaprio website declared that the actor is actually an alien who’s attempting to conquer Earth by having sex with the planet’s female population. In 2022, the blog post no longer exists, nor does the original conspiracy theory (we now know that DiCaprio wouldn’t sleep with the women over 25). It did, however, inspire the South Korean filmmaker Jang Joon-hwan to write and direct Save the Green Planet!, a 2003 comedy that may well become a 2024 comedy, should Ari Aster’s remake plans come to fruition.
In 2020, Aster and Lars Knudsen announced that their production company, Square Peg, are collaborating with CJ Entertainment, the studio behind Parasite, to redo Save the Green Planet! for modern audiences. According to the press release, Jang will direct from a script penned by Succession writer Will Tracy, and, per Aster’s words, the updated, US-set version will “reflect the mess of the world today”. Could it star DiCaprio as an alleged alien? Perhaps Cousin Greg? Two years on, we’re still waiting for an update.
In the meantime, Jang’s original Save the Green Planet! is a riotous genre mashup worth your time. Accompanied by a punk cover of “Over the Rainbow”, the opening credits establish what’s to follow: a raucous send-up of movie tropes. Here, the DiCaprio figure is Kang Man-shik (Yun-shik Baek), a wealthy, suited CEO who’s captured by Lee Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-gyun), an incel-ish beekeeper who’s convinced that Kang is an extra-terrestrial from the planet Andromeda. If Lee is correct, Kang’s fellow Andromedans are planning to exterminate the human race in order to save planet Earth from the humans themselves. Thus the underlying gag: even within Lee’s logic, mankind is the global-warming, in-fighting bad guys.
What distinguishes Save the Green Planet! from, say, any other kooky caper theorising that wealthy businessmen are secret Martians is Jang’s scattershot approach to tone. One scene may be an achingly sincere, dialogue-driven revelation about Lee’s tragic background, the next could be an animated, 2001-referencing flashback featuring dinosaurs or a musical interlude involving Lee’s circus-performing girlfriend. Interspersed throughout, too, is a jarringly gritty subplot about the detectives who suspect Lee of the kidnapping. By the time a swarm of bees commit a cinematic, giallo-style murder, you half-wonder if Jang is treating the movie as a showreel for his versatility.
Even then, nothing can prepare viewers for the detour into torture porn. Imprisoned by Lee, Kang is tied up and experimented on, his three weak points supposedly being his feet, his eyes, and between his legs. With Kang shaved, electrocuted, and repeatedly interrogated about his UFO philosophy (which he denies through tears of pain), it’s apparent we’ve witnessed this dynamic before, just in reverse. In an interview with The Village Voice, Jang cited two core ideas: “this anti-DiCaprio website” and retelling Misery from the kidnapper’s point of view.
Unsurprisingly, Save the Green Planet! was a box-office flop, both in South Korea and overseas. Sympathising with an antihero? In 2003? On this planet? But any fan of Aster’s films should be open-minded. Take Hereditary, a global hit starring Toni Collette as a mother who tells her son, “All I get back is that fucking face on your face.” Or Midsommar, a relationship drama that has the audience cheering when Florence Pugh’s Dani opts to watch her boyfriend burn alive.
In fact, in a 2019 IndieWire feature, Aster specifically named Save the Green Planet! as the top inspiration for Midsommar’s jaw-dropping conclusion. He elaborated, “There are so many South Korean films that have come out in the last 20 years… I love how they juggle tones.”
Like Aster’s two released features (and, allegedly, his upcoming Disappointment Blvd.), Save the Green Planet! is a gory, messed-up, all-out genre extravaganza with family trauma at its heart. In homemade protection gear that’s a slightly more advanced version of wrapping himself up in aluminium foil, Lee looks comically absurd – more SNL than Spielberg. But Shin imbues so much earnestness into the ridiculous dialogue, you go along with the mayhem. And, sure, Lee’s sob story is surrounded by so much silliness it doesn’t quite resonate like Dani losing her parents and sister before Midsommar’s opening credits, but it does explain a method to the film’s madness.
Kang owns Yuje Chemicals, and Lee’s mother, an employee at the pharmaceutical company, was poisoned and has been comatose for years. Moreover, Lee was beaten by school teachers, his father was abusive, and in a prison stint he was further assaulted. To ease the pain, Lee turned to conspiracy theories. Back then, there was no Joe Rogan podcast, so he went for the next best thing: choosing to believe that the man responsible for his mother’s impending death is a UFO.
Perhaps, then, Save the Green Planet! really does require a modern update. In 2003, writing online that DiCaprio is a dangerously sexy extra-terrestrial was a funny goof; today, it could be the latest tweet from QAnon. And, if DiCaprio is involved in the new version, the actor could bring it full circle to his Titanic days, satirising the alien-like nature of celebrity and the self-congratulatory element of his Don’t Look Up press tour. Besides, a remake may seem illogical, but so did the original film. As Aster noted when introducing Jang’s sci-fi at a 2019 repertory screening, “This is a movie that should not work but does really beautifully.”