Thursday, July 21, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Space Monster Wangmagwi

When the Earth is faced with some kind of monstrous attack from space, everyone’s first choice to lead the defense would be an officer played by Kenneth Tobey. As fate would have it, the aliens target mid-1960s South Korea. Don’t despair, my late grandfather (who fought in the Korean War and was stationed there afterwards) always said the Koreans were some of toughest warfighters he’d ever seen, so the Earth could be in worse hands. Unfortunately, downtown Seoul is still in for the kaiju treatment in Gwon Hyeok-jinn’s Space Monster Wangmagwi, Korea’s second-ever Kaiju movie, which screens (unembargoed) in its freshly restored glory at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Earth is a nice-looking planet, so the aliens (sporting tin foil radiation suits, sort of like silver versions of Marvel’s A.I.M. Troopers) intend to take it. Basically, they are using the
Plan 9 from Outer Space playbook, but instead of raising the dead, they release Wangmagwi (“Big Devil”), a fierce kaiju that will grow to a monstrous size once it enters the planet’s atmosphere.

Wreckage and carnage ensue, but worst of all, Ahn Hee might have to postpone her wedding with Captain Oh Jeong-hwan, because all Air Force officers are recalled to base. She also must deal with an unwanted suitor, Wangmagwi, who scoops her up during his rampage. Arguably, that is a good thing, because it only leaves him one arm free to topple buildings. The Korean Air Force does what they can, but a bratty street urchin with a kitchen knife climbing in and around Wangmagwi’s auditory canal and nasal passage is much more effective.

Sadly, Korea’s first kaiju film is considered permanently lost, so we sadly cannot compare how Korean “Suitmation” techniques evolved over the intervening five years. Clearly,
SMW stole from the best of them, conspicuously including King Kong and Godzilla. Yet, it has weird inclinations towards potty humor that sets it apart. The effects are about what you would expect from Roger Corman in the late 1950s, except the sequences in Wangmagwi’s ear and up his nose, which are shockingly awesome. The POV shots through his facial orifices truly represent some classic cinema.

Of course, the special effects are dubious and the dialogue is corny. Frankly, they are supposed to be. That is what makes kaiju movies of this era so much fun. Gwon delivers everything cult-fans want from the genre, with total earnestness. Anyone with any kind of association with the genre will smile with affection as they groan in mockery. Highly recommended for vintage kaiju fans, the snazzily restored
Space Monster Wangmagwi screens Saturday (7/23) at this year’s Fantasia.