Unfortunately, I didn’t catch on to what was being played — or, rather, how very rarely some of it is seen — until the evening of the 3rd of August, when it was too late to see the legendary, much-sought-after first Korean monster movie, 우주괴인 왕마귀 (Giant Space Monster Wangmagwi), so I’ll have to just keep looking around and try to catch it next time around. Or, rather, get stomped by it.
However, I did manage to see a few other Korean giant monster movies. I’m going to reserve comments on The Host beyond the few things that hit me watching the film in the cinema that time, but what I have to say about the rest will follow.
The screenings enjoyed a relatively decent turnout, overall. Only a few films had less than ten people show up, and several have more than twenty, which is not bad on weekday afternoons and evenings, after all. Of course, the numbers were boosted by the fact that some local care home or activity group for people who were very obviously mentally handicapped had decided that monster flicks was a good form of afternoon entertainment — and indeed it was: they got into the films more than anyone! The remainder of the audience was predominantly men in thir 30s, along with a few assorted spouses and kids of both sexes.
A local club of Giant Monster Movie fanatics (who have a Naver Cafe here) had a big display of giant monster toys and action figures set up, and were hawking books about the history of Korean monster movies for W4000 (ie. about four bucks) apiece, though they gave me a copy for free, perhaps just because how often does one meet a Westerner who’s interested in Korean monster movies?
(By the way, I have a short video of all the toys they put on display, if anyone’s interested. I suspect nobody is, but comment if you like and I’ll put it on Youtube.)
Oh, one more thing to add was that it was devilishly cheap. For less than the cost of a single movie ticket at any other place, I saw all of these films over the course of two days. It was bizarre!
킹콩의 대역습 (Ape): This movie is collossally bad. Essentially, a giant ape goes on a rampage through the countryside near Seoul (Suwon, to be precise, but this was 1976. Between American military personnel who laugh off the threat, and the Korean government (that is, the dictator Park Chung Hee, who is directly referenced and calls the American officer we see most) who is hell-bent on capturing the gargantuan ape alive, the common folk don’t stand a chance. In fact, this is one of the most realistic elements in the film: the way Park Chung Hee is implied to basically write off the deaths of hundreds of peasants as the cost of catching the beast alive, for the sake of Korean science.
The ape is laughably bad, a guy in a monkey suit who mostly stands around for trick shots and even flips the bird at his assailants at one point. And in a shocking subplot (for anything actually involving uhman characters is a subplot in a monster movie, sub- in multiple senses of the word), Joanna Kerns (better known as the mom from Growing Pains) runs about in a red silk kimono, showing off her thighs and white panties for all to see as her newsman boyfriend and his Korean military buddy fight to save her from the beast. Because giant apes always fall for blondes, didn’t ya know? The special effects are probably clever for 1920, but for 1976 they’re, um, laughable. And the film is indeed good fun, if you are the sort who finds laughing at a film enjoyable.
One tiny twinge of curiosity I feel is about a few moments in the script that don’t seem so much like they were written by the credited screenwriters, Paul and Reuben Leder. Or, rather, they feel like they were sketched out by a Korean pulp movie writer, and maybe improvised or filled in by the actors or the screenwriters. One such moment is in the taxi ride the two American civilians (Kerns and the reporter) take into Seoul. She comments, at one point, “What’s that building?” — evading yet another marriage proposal from her sorta-boyfriend, and he says, “That’s the Blue House. It’s where the President lives.” (Or thus I remember the line.) She replies, “It’s very impressive, especially with that mountain behind it,” which sounds to me very much like the kind of thing a Korean would throw into the script.
(Another thing that makes me wonder is just how oversexed our white couple is in the film — they’re making out all the time, while the Korean couple we see only eat breakfast together with their kids, with obvious fondness but not a hunt of attraction between them. The making-out of the white couple seems almost exaggerated, but it could well be that’s what American pulp film directors were doing too.)
비천 괴수 (Flying Dragon Attacks (?!?!?)): Apparently, some dragons’ heads look like chicken heads!
In this 1984 film, a female reporter is sent to a little seaside town (or so it seemed to me) to figure out what some guy is up to. She ends up sneakily posing as a housemaid and caretaker for the man’s young daughter whom he parents alone — a little girl who is squeezed of every drop of cuteness possible — and discovers that what the man is up to is studying the bones of weird sea monsters. The man discovers her snooping, fires her from the maid position, and then all hell breaks loose. A large number of bizarre creatures attack the town, to be killed off one by one. The little girl — who, strangely, finds the monsters quite enchanting and cute, a strange pattern that cropped up again and again — is hurt by one, melodrama ensues, more monsters attack, and yay, Korean military force saves the day time and time again. The airplanes in flight — so fake, so inspiring, so reassuring that the threat of Communism is well fended-off.
It was one of the most interesting of the films, partly for itsuse, as in The Host, of a broken family structure, of hospitalization, and of dramatic military action all together. But as you can see from the pictures I harvested from this Korean review of the film, the monsters themselves are, well… pretty goofy:
대괴수 용가리 (Yonggary, the Creature from the Depths): This movie was unfortunately the “edited” (ie. horribly chopped up, I don’t know why) version of the 1967 film as it was, apparently, first screened for Korean audiences. At least, I think that’s what the guy who took my ticket explained to me when I asked what the difference between this and the 78 minute version was. Practically unwatchable, it mostly focuses on the military side of the story, featuring a brave Korean astronaut and his family as they work with the Korean military to obliterate the threat of Yonggary, which is basically a Korean rip-off of Godzilla. It had no subtitles. It needed no subtitles, though: the dialogue was so radically chopped up that the point of the thing was seeing (small, plastic) Korean fighter jets zipping around and shooting at the monster, which occasionally got knocked out with some special knockout powder dropped (by the astronaut, in a helicopter, with his whole family along for the ride). One wonders why they didn’t just keep applying knockout powder to prevent the monster from demolishing half of Seoul.
And of course, the knockout effect seemed — from my hazy grasp of what was going on between characters — to have been discovered by a little boy who was quite, er, interested in the monster. No, no, not “interested” in that way, I mean, fascinated by, excited about, and eager to see. There’s something in these Korean monster movies about the fascination kids have for the monstrous, their simultaneous vulnerability to monsters, and interest in them, and ignorance of the danger. It makes one wonder to what degree Korean monster movies of the past are on some level about ideological anxieties about the North, which are, of course, like the monster, eventually fended off by neato whizbang fighter jets.
(At least, I think there were also fighter jets in this film. After a few bad monster movies, they all sort of meld into one soppy mess. There were definitely tanks, though!)
Another explanation is that Korean filmmakers may have tended to see SF as “kid stuff” (as do some Western filmmakers, but as do many more in cultures where SF is less well-established or lacks a native form). Perhaps the kids’ are also supposed to arouse the interest of kids in the audience? I’m not sure, but it’s something I don’t think we have as much of in Western monster movies. Or maybe it’s just falling back on making the film more about families than about armies and powers. In that, Yonggary shares something with 비천괴수.
불가사리 (Pulgasari): Yes, this is the famous North Korean giant monster film from1985, directed by a South Korean director who was abducted to the North (as was his wife) for the purposes of making movies in North Korea. If you can’t beat ’em, kidnap their resources, I guess? And yes, it’s a painfully obvious allegory for capitalism — it temporarily frees workers, but eventually consumes everything of value in their lives. Actually, it’s hard to say that’s wrong, but Mr. Kim’s solution to the problem is like cutting off a broken leg. Anyway, again, there were no subtitles, but for the most part, none were needed, and I was almos glad to be spared the finer points of the ideology spouting from peasants’ mouths. Though if you want to see it with subtitle, you can watch the whole thing via Google Video:
I don’t have a hell of a lot to add to critical discussions of the film like the review at Socialist Films or the discussion at io9, but I will note that a Western (American?) remake of the film apparently, and the (terrible-looking) thing is titled Galgameth (here’s the film’s IMBD page) in which the original director, Shin Sang-ok, was involved! Oh, and that the Bulgasari is actually a traditional supernatural (or imaginary, anyway) beast from Korean mythology. I ran across a reference in a translation of a poem years ago to “the legendary bulgasari of Andong,” though I might be remembering the place-name wrong. Funny, since I get the impression those who know the creature at all now know it from the North Korean film — how many more mythic beasts have simply been forgotten by all but a few?
Anyway, for better or worse, I class this as a non-SFnal giant-monster movie — specifically, as an allegorical fantasy — but a kaiju is a kaiju is a 괴수 — they’re all alike on a fundamental level, and there are considerable commonalities shared with the other 괴수 movies I’ve seen: again, there are kids who are crazy about the critter (which is, after all, a cute little fella at the beginning), useless and corrupt power-holders who are essentially powerless against it and put off doing anything for too long, and there’s some smashing and bashing of scale-model buildings. But the monster actually leads the peasants in its battle scenes, which is kind of cool, and it feeds not only on metal but on the blood of saddened a maiden — ah, the taste of 한 (suffering) — and unlike the other beasts in the series, the Bulgasari doesn’t come from space or from the depths of a body of water, but instead, is a man-made golem-like creature fashioned for revenge.
And you too can have your own Bulgasari for only… oh, well, you could in 1998. No more, unless you go hunting for it second hand. Yes, made by a Japanese toy maker, but then… Bulgasari was a North Korean/Japanese co-production! (So sayeth Wikipedia, at least.)
손오공 홍해아 대전 (Son Oh-kong vs Hong Hae-a): Aside from a brief scene where some spirit or deity of unusual size assault the intreprid party of adventurers in the story, this wasn’t really a 괴수 movie at all, though I can see why it was included — it is in a related genre, and uses many of the special effects seemingly pioneered in monster movies. The characters are probably familiar to many from the various other retellings of the “Journey to the West” stories — yeah, that trio of a Pig-man, a Monkey King, and a bald, ugly fella who accompany an important Buddhist cleric (in the AD&D sense of the word) on his journey to India.
It was goofily fun, though by the end I was eager to leave, partly because it was so episodic, partly because it was mostly for kids, and partly because there’s just so much of the “special effects” one can take when special effects mean stopping the camera so characters can move, and then starting it again, this having characters teleport around the screen at high speed. That got old pretty fast!
Here’s a clip that I think includes bits from the whole series.
괴물 (The Host): There’s a lot I have to say about this 2006 film, but I’m saving most of it for a post very soon.
However, a few elements that jumped out at me as having been directly linked to one or more earlier Korean monster movies, though given a twist in this film:
- A special “contact” or connection between overtly vulnerable children and the monster.
- Presentations of both the American military and the Korean government and military as ineffectual or callous, later resolved by an over-the-top military response that takes down (or helps take down) the beast.
- Foreigners circumstantially or directly connected with the appearance of the monster in Korea.
- The monster’s having arisen from the watery depths and finally wreaking havoc in Seoul. (Though thebeast in The Host doesn’t smash any buildings at all!)
- The monster is revealed very quickly, and gets a good amount of screen time. Which sucks when your special effects are bad, as in older Korean monster movies, but which is excellent when you have CGI on your side.
And as a treat for those of who’ve survived this far, here is a very odd but characteristic observation of Korean monster movies: the critters always, always can be made into cute icons. Well, wait, maybe not The Host. But all the rest? Check it out: