Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
You must believe. That’s the customary message of American movies that posit the existence of witches, aliens, or other creatures that inhabit the black forests of the human imagination. Yet Hollywood also loves detectives, scientists, and con men who understand everything and thus can dispel the very claptrap that fantasy flicks peddle. Those two imperatives meet—and very nearly cancel each other out—in Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, which from the maker of Time Bandits and Brazil is unusually ordinary fairy-tale fare. The film’s conventionality is a bore, but it’s perhaps better than the alternative: Jang Jun-hwan’s Save the Green Planet! hits many of the same notes as Grimm, but in a hysterical, painfully unmodulated key. This horror/revenge/ UFO meltdown is by far the more unusual of the two pictures, but that doesn’t mean it’s the more enjoyable.
“You probably think I’m crazy” are the first words of Save the Green Planet!, and it’s clear that somebody associated with this patchwork fable is a little balmy. But writer-director Jang intends to keep the viewer off balance as long as possible, piling up surprise endings in his quest to exploit every possible angle of his story. Simultaneously brutal and facetious, the movie seems designed for—or maybe by—people hopelessly jaded by mass-media overkill. Jang even interjects a snippet of Holocaust newsreel footage into his farce—a gambit too tasteless for just about any American or European filmmaker.
The guy you probably think is crazy is Lee (Shin Ha-gyun), a man with many grudges against the world. He’s convinced that his former employer, Yuje Chemicals CEO Kang (Baek Yun-shik), is responsible for his mother’s being in a persistent vegetative state. In frenzied indignation, Lee has concluded that Kang is an extraterrestrial, a representative of an Andromedan species that has toyed with humans repeatedly over millennia. Lee has devised an elaborate mythology—or “science,” if you will—to explain the behavior of the Andromedans. He has also conceived an action plan: He will capture Kang, take him to a secret lair, and torture him until he reveals his nasty alien secrets. Lee’s lieutenant is his chubby, slow-witted girlfriend, Sooni (Hwang Jung-min), who’s abandoned a (relatively) stable career as a tightrope walker to join this seemingly crackpot anti-Andromedan campaign.
After Lee nabs Kang, the case is investigated by three detectives from the Seoul police department’s stock-character squad: eccentric but infallible Detective Chu (Lee Jae-yong), who was demoted because of some unspecified previous infraction; smart but untested Detective Kim (Lee Ju-hyeon), a rising star who idolizes Chu; and officious and incompetent Detective Lee (Ki Ju-bong), the sort of guy who keeps getting promoted because he never challenges the conventional wisdom. Chu and Kim independently locate alien-fighter Lee’s hideout, but it’s Detective Lee who ultimately takes the credit after all of Jang’s plot twists and movie parodies have played out.
Perhaps because Korea is still nursing wounds from the authoritarian rule that ended less than 20 years ago—its downfall is a bit of Lee’s elaborate backstory—revenge is a motif in many of the country’s recent films. Save the Green Planet! is in no small part a fantasy of vengeance on corporate despoilers, but unlike Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, Jang doesn’t maintain a tight thematic focus. Parts of his film borrow all too earnestly from the serial-killer and horror genres, slinging gore and body parts about the screen. (As an aside, Jang even constructs a Sweeney Todd–like retribution scenario for Korean canines.) He also throws in burlesque of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Bible, both punk and trad renditions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and numerous references to amphetamines—which supposedly fuel Lee’s outer-space fancies but also seem to have inspired the movie’s herky-jerky editing and intentionally focus-defying cinematography.
Save the Green Planet! flopped at the box office in Korea but later became a DVD cult sensation. It did better theatrically in Japan, which makes a certain amount of sense. That land, after all, is the home of wildly excessive B-movie director Takashi Miike, who’s surely a bigger influence on Jang than is Stanley Kubrick or Judy Garland. Like Miike’s best-known outrages, Save the Green Planet! is a sloppy, self-amused pileup of whims, gags, in-jokes, homages, subversions, and whatever else was lying around. The only thing about it that can be taken seriously is its refusal to take anything seriously.
After a quick family-history prologue, The Brothers Grimm turns to the business of debunking. At this point in the careers of Grimm brothers Will (Matt Damon) and Jake (Heath Ledger), they’re not yet fable writers but, well, ghostbusters. They ride into a town that’s supposedly beleaguered by a witch or a gremlin and make an elaborate show of dispatching the supernatural menace. Of course, a show is what it is: The Grimms are hustlers, exploiting the superstitions of small-town rubes in French-occupied 19th-century Germany. The movie’s first act is largely a lesson in theatrical special effects and thus a playful self-exposé of Terry Gilliam’s career.
There must be more than this, of course, but what scripter Ehren Kruger provides is entirely routine, save for the period costumes. Cocky Will, the troupe’s mastermind, and timid Jake are busted for “humbuggery” and dragged to Napoleon’s local rep, Gen. Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce, overly tickled by his own hammy French accent). The pompous officer (whose name means “from the grave”) offers the brothers a deal: the possibility of amnesty if they can crack the case of the abduction of 10 little girls (at least one wearing a red hood) by a creature that resembles a big, bad wolf.
This is one of the film’s numerous references to oft-told tales, but the central story doesn’t come from the Grimms’ repertoire. Instead we get a mishmash of vampire lore and pagan chic, as beautiful but “cursed” local trapper Angelika (Keira Knightley–in–training Lena Headey) explains to the Grimms that the neighboring forest was sacred until Christianized civilization began to impinge on it. Perhaps the girls have been kidnapped for a ritual designed by the Rapunzel-like queen (Monica Bellucci in a characteristically decorative role) who has long lived in a tower at the center of the woods. Will tries to explain away all the uncanniness the brothers encounter as the work of performers with a bigger budget than theirs. But Jake begins to come into his own, both as a writer and an occult sleuth, because he believes. “The story is alive—it’s breathing,” he exclaims, “and we can give it a happy ending!”
Kruger’s previous credits include two Rings and a Scream, so it’s hardly unexpected that The Brothers Grimm draws heavily from horror movies, with shock cuts, big bangs, mortified flesh, and creepy-crawlies to get audience adrenaline glands secreting. (Both this film and Save the Green Planet! required bug wranglers.) Gilliam stages the action skillfully enough, and he diverts himself with stray visual references—that’s John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, right?—but doesn’t seem fully committed. Damon also appears disengaged; he’s in it only for the buddy-flick banter, of which there isn’t all that much (although it is of higher quality than the lame French-culture humor).
Damon may have been thinking of Gerry, and Gilliam of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but that’s not what they ended up with. The director’s most conventional movie since The Fisher King, The Brothers Grimm doesn’t really believe in magic, or love, or whatever else it purports to exalt. It’s an adequate little Hollywood genre-blending machine, with aspirations that are smaller and tidier than those of Gilliam’s best films. Perhaps he’ll get another shot at making something weirder. Meanwhile, anyone craving full-bore idiosyncrasy can always enter the alternate universe known as Korean cinema.CP