Nick Davie: As 2020 draws to a close, South Korean cinema has never been as popular as it is now, in part thanks to Parasite‘s Best Picture Academy Award triumph for Bong Joon-ho. As western audiences were further exposed to South Korean cinema, Jang Joon-hwan announced he would be remaking 2003’s Save the Green Planet! in the English language. This month we will be discussing Jang Joon-hwan’s original film, in which the word original really sticks. The film is a unique blend of genres, from science fiction to kidnap/torture drama to conspiracy comedy. Joon-hwan has stated he was influenced by Rob Reiner‘s adaptation of the Stephen King novel Misery though Joon-hwan wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the kidnapper in his film. Also influenced by theories that aliens are already amongst us, specifically a website claiming Leonardo DiCaprio is one of them plotting our downfall from within, the South Korean director’s vision was well received in his homeland. The film follows traumatized Lee Byeong-gu (Ha-kyun Shin) who believes he has discovered a royal descendant Man-shik Kang (Yun-shik Baek) from the planet Andromeda plotting an alien invasion of Earth. With the help of his girlfriend Su-ni (Jung-min Hwang), Byeong-gu keeps Baek hostage in his basement. Law enforcement is stumped. They resort to employing now-disgraced private detective Kim (Ju-hyeon Lee) in a disingenuous attempt to find the kidnapped Baek. What ensues spans a multitude of genres, a chaotic and frantic finale capping off a wonderfully unique film that joins an ever-growing slate of Western remakes of South Korean films. Whilst the remake will be produced by contemporary horror master Ari Aster and Succession writer Will Tracey is adapting the script, how can any of the original’s unique mind-bending qualities be adapted by Hollywood?
Eugene Kang: It’s interesting that you ask that, Nick, because I saw in Green Planet a lot of inspirations from American and Japanese movies. The kinetic cinematography was somewhat reminiscent of Tarantino‘s and Rodriguez‘s work, not to mention the work of Shinya Tsukamoto of Tetsuo fame. Jang Joon-Hwan is a core figure in the New Korean cinema movement, which also includes Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, and he and those other directors were avid cinephiles who would spend hours and hours talking about all types of films. This is not exactly an unheard of phenomenon for any famous director, but I believe these Korean directors were more willing to take the most disparate influences and funnel them through very specific visions. A movie like Oldboy may be a revenge thriller based on a Japanese manga but that film also has a darkly comic heart that is uniquely Park’s operatic vision. The Host may be basically a monster movie but it also has elements of slapstick and melodrama that are tied together by dynamic filmmaking. Even the genesis of the idea for Green Planet that you mentioned reflects this out-of-the-box mindset that I have observed in these directors.
To specifically answer your question, Nick, I think Green Planet, as exhilarating as it is, bears the marks of the time and place when it was made. Going back to Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, both their concerns and filmmaking have changed and (arguably) evolved because of the changing time and culture, and also simply because they have gotten older and more experienced. Since Jang Joon-Hwan is returning to this film nearly 20 years later, my hope is that he finds ways to update this movie to where he is currently as a filmmaker and also to the new time and culture that the remake will be set in. His most recent work that I have seen, 1987: When the Day Comes, doesn’t have much of the youthful brashness of Green Planet, but it was still an effective historical drama made by an assured hand. So I will be cautiously optimistic about this remake.
Rosie Blackburn: Adaptation can be a transformative creative process. Battle Royale the novel and the film of the same name are totally distinct but equally valid and interesting properties. Having said that, utter the words ‘English language adaptation of a Korean/Japanese film’ and I instantly start having flashbacks to The Uninvited, Charles Guard‘s 2009 adaptation of A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s not an absolute, but many such adaptations seem to pull the heart and teeth out of the original products, leaving us with fairly run of the mill Hollywood horrors.
Yet again, we are living in different times now; Sion Sono has a series on UK and American Netflix so we can safely say that there is now much more tolerance of distinct cultures in film and TV amongst English speaking audiences.
Speaking of when Save the Green Planet! was made, it definitely does bear the hallmarks of its time. However, I think now more than ever is a relevant moment to remake the film for a larger audience. Lee Byeong-gu, our main character, is undeniably not in touch with reality and his actions are harmful and violent. But all the same he has been hurt by the world in which he finds himself and he knows that something is very wrong with that world.
In 2003 we were only just entering the information age as we know it, but you only have to open Twitter or read a YouTube comment section today to know that many people are arriving at very strange and sometimes very harmful conclusions in response to the wrongs around them. Conspiracy theories and those that become involved in them are no longer just on the fringes of our society. I’d make the case that Save the Green Planet! is actually doing what Joker tried to do and fell short.
Is now a good social and political moment to examine, critique and perhaps empathise with a strange mindset formed in opposition to a perceived mainstream, shaped by cruelty and fuelled by social media?
Nick: A great series of points Eugene and Rosie, and I have to agree that adaptation can be littered with homages and references to other films and directors, whilst remaining as valid as its references. That being said, I am sceptical of how Green Planet can be westernised. Though it is appropriate politically for our current time, can the same unique brand of comedy and horror be blended together for western audiences? As Eugene explains, Jang will no doubt have evolved and adapted to changing culture, and I am keen to see how this is reflected in the remake.
The current socio-political climate is worthy of artistic renditions. As conspiracy theories are rife about vaccines and viruses alike, film can be the best way to document and satirise these things. The ending specifically would have to be carefully scripted as to not give power to the growing conspiracies but to poke fun at them, perhaps lightly. With the original ending somewhat confirming Byeong-gu’s worst fears, should an update of this be more carefully approached?
I would hope Joon-hwan attempts the genre-blending uniqueness the original film had. There is a case to assess several potential remakes slated in the US, Parasite being one.
Eugene: It will be fascinating to see how Jang will consider the digital age in his remake. Conspiracy theories always had an air of secrecy about them in the pre-digital age, but as Rosie rightly pointed out, this sort of delusional, non-factual paranoia nowadays is so commonplace that we have to adjust for it whenever we navigate the Internet. That being said, I think the Internet’s influence may be a little less pronounced than one might think in this particular story, simply because Save the Green Planet is such a claustrophobic work in which the main character deliberately sticks to his tunnel vision of the world. Most of the movie plays like a two-man play with the occasional supporting character entering and providing some sort of obstacle. And to your point, I don’t think this film gives any credence to the conspiracies laid out here, despite how the story develops. Rather, Jang’s concern in this film is pointing out that Byeong-gu’s delusions come from a place of deep hurt and suffering, not all of which was brought about by himself. Though I can also see, Nick, how this film perhaps could be seen as an endorsement to take conspiracy theories seriously, simply because an artist cannot control how his work will be interpreted without complete hand-holding. It reminds me of Fight Club, how both Chuck Palahniuk‘s original book and David Fincher‘s film, and how some (often male) fans completely missed the satire and saw this as an affirmation of their suspicion that their fragile masculinity was being assaulted.
What do you think about this conundrum of an artist having little control over how their work is interpreted and how do you think film discourse struggles with this particular issue, especially in terms of how strongly people feel about their opinions about film?
Rosie: I think your point Eugene about the two handed nature of Green Planet is a good one, and highlights something; if the remake brings us a similar dynamic it might preserve something of the original comedy.
Ironically, speaking of how fans and viewers ultimately control the narrative around a work, perhaps I’ve injected my own feelings about social media here. Perhaps it really is just a two man play about an Andromedan and a man in relative isolation with a decorative bike helmet who’s trying to save the world! As Nick rightly points out this film is a genre salad on purpose, and as much as it courts a horrible psychological darkness, it’s also a sci-fi comedy.
I personally think it’s right that once a work is released into the world it belongs to the audience. Attempts to gatekeep the meaning of media are always negative and limiting. But as you say Eugene this works both ways and that narrative can be hijacked. Even with properties that seem to have straightforward themes and ideas this is still a reality. Consider the bizarre furore that erupted around the new Star Wars films or Wonder Woman.
Circling back around to genres for a moment, I’m interested to see how an English language adaptation handles the violence that is present in Green Planet. I do find that Korean and Japanese cinema manage to utilise violence in a way that manages to be both horrible and comedic. Is the adaptation going to flatten this to a much less rich result?
Nick: Audience interpretation can also play into the hands of the director- Hitchcock as an example was a brilliant manipulator of audiences. Through the use of motifs and imagery, he was able to dictate much of the audience’s perception of his films. Perhaps Jang will need to consider different aesthetic qualities and purposefully placed props, etc that differ from the original to control the narrative. This may be counterintuitive to the mystery elements of the plot but it may help dodge any potential controversy.
The original is the perfect example of the darkly comic ultra-violence that features in Japanese and Korean cinema, but I think the works of Tarantino have perhaps bridged the gap. In terms of preservation, it feels vital that the remake feature this weird, kitsch visual style and confounding plot structure. I would be interested to consider which adaptations have been more successful than their Asian originals, if any at all?
What role will Ari Aster play in the balance of genres? And who could you both envisage playing the key roles in the English language version?
Eugene: I am not automatically opposed to the idea of a remake, but like Rosie, I have been disappointed by inferior remakes. Many of the examples I have seen, especially of Asian cinema, lack whatever it was that made the original pop. There are too many to list, but a few I would like to point out are Spike Lee‘s Oldboy and The Lake House, the sci-fi romantic comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. Both were based on well-received Korean movies and both movies are fairly faithful to the plot of the original, the Lake House almost slavishly so. Yet Oldboy lacked the original’s grandiose tone and black comedy, which really elevated the original, rather than its plot, which is pseudo-Greek tragedy meets grindhouse. Lee’s film is long and plodding with only occasional flashes of brilliance and could never escape the shadow of the original. As for The Lake House, the original film, Il Mare, was a sweet, slight romance that knew exactly what it was and didn’t force its premise too hard for the audience. But the American remake was quite heavy-handed with its plot gimmick and took itself way too seriously.
I think the best remakes are the ones that use the originals as jumping off points, not cast-iron templates. Who remembers, for instance, that True Lies was a remake of a French movie? Cronenberg‘s The Fly took a monster of the week premise and became an exploration of toxic masculinity with the most exquisite body horror. As for Aster’s role, I think he has already shown that he is adventurous when it comes to the treatment of genre and that he would be an ideal producer to supervise Jang’s translation to English, since he obviously knows the power and frenetic charm of the original.
Rosie: I find Aster’s involvement a cause for cautious optimism but not much further than that. As much as I like his films, and as much as they push the envelope with horror in Hollywood, I’m not sure I can find a great deal that is kindred between his oeuvre and a work as unique as Green Planet. But again, his involvement is in some ways promising.
Speaking of casting, I actually find this to be one of the least transferrable elements of TV and film adaptations. A good recent example I have of this is the Prime Video remake of the Channel 4 Series Utopia. Although Sasha Lane is quite competent in the 2020 version, she was set a very high bar by Fiona O’Shaughnessy in her performance as Jessica Hyde. Although I do think Fiona O’Shaughnessy is better in the role, I wonder if sometimes I am at least a bit biased with casting because of a love of the original as a whole.
Anyone who saw Shin Ha-kyun in Green Planet and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance will know he brings a very unique, off kilter naivete to these roles and it’s hard to imagine who else might be able to pull this off. Considering his recent work I wonder what Robert Pattinson might do with the part, but I can’t think of anyone with quite the same qualities as Shin Ha-kyun.
All that being said, when I find out something I love is being remade I try to remain optimistic. After The Golden Compass I thought we’d never see a good take on Phillip Pullman‘s famous book series, but after the 2020 TV remake His Dark Materials, in particular Ruth Wilson‘s Mrs. Coulter, my faith is renewed again.
Adaptation is change, and whilst the originals should always be retained and appreciated, I feel we should try to embrace that change with a view to growing the stories we love, or risk stagnation.
Nick: I agree that the involvement of Aster generates cautious optimism, however, Jang will have to be given the control needed to recreate his vision. The involvement of Aster and more so the studio will play a large role in how this remake is produced and received.
Returning to the casting discussion, this film represents a unique challenge for Hollywood actors that may feature – how do they translate the original’s kitsch, off-kilter humor that laces the violence and other disturbing elements of the plot? Robert Pattinson is a good shout, several other names like John Cho, Steven Yeun or Lakeith Stanfield would be able to carry the role well. Whether anyone can carry the bizarre sentimentality and unparalleled commitment to confusion as Shin Ha-kyun remains to be seen. Are there any casting choices that spring to mind for you Eugene?
As Rosie says, adaptations are risks and they present often an unwanted risk to fans of original content. A good example of a foreign language film remade in the English language by the same director for me would be Funny Games by Michael Haneke in which the adaptation stays true to the original and, in my opinion, offers a fresh take through the performance of Naomi Watts.
Finally, I think caution is sensible but optimism is warranted for a remake that should satirize our somewhat strange political climate.
Eugene: It’s funny, I was thinking of Steven Yeun as well for the role of the main character. Yeun has quietly been building up the most impressive resume post-Walking Dead, with parts in other Korean auteurs’ works such as Okja and Burning. I think he could easily embody the squirrely energy and paranoia that character must possess. I think it would be amazing if the creative team could commit to a Korean-American or mostly Asian-American cast for its remake. Someone like Randall Duk Kim could play the CEO, since he has both the gravity and the eccentricity needed for that character. And Awkwafina could break some new ground in her acting career by playing one of the main figures of pathos in this film, Suni, who is not just one of the most sympathetic but also perhaps the oddest character in this already bonkers film. I don’t think it will happen mainly because the producers aren’t Korean-American, since only a Korean-American producer with representation specifically in mind would try to make something like my dream cast happen, but one can hope. In any case, I will still be highly interested in this remake and will hope for the best with all the talent involved.