Sunday, August 27, 2023

Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade: The Great Monster Yonggary

Forget Godzilla vs. Kong, because it was so disappointing. What would really be cool would be Yonggary vs. Wangmagwi, a battle of the Korean kaiju. There is even some bad blood between the respective monsters. Yonggary was completed first, but Space Monster Wangmagwi beat it into theaters, earning accusations of plagiarism. Wangmagwi has recently been restored to its full earth-shaking glory, but Yonggary still only exists in the English-dubbed print produced by American International Pictures. Even with dubious English dialogue, it is still fun to watch the Godzilla-like monster smash stuff up in Kim Kee-duk’s The Great Monster Yonggary (a.k.a. Yonggary, Monster from the Deep), which screens as part of the film series, Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade: The 1960s.

Ever so coincidentally,
Yonggary starts with a newlywed pilot, recalled to duty after his wedding, to monitor a nuclear test in the Middle East from space. In Wangmagwi, our hero pilot was forced to postpone his wedding, so it was totally different. Regardless, the Korean space program is way more advanced in Yonggary than it is in The Moon. Be that as it may, the nuclear blast unleashes a monster buried deep within the Earth and it starts making its way straight towards the Korean peninsula, triggering catastrophic earthquakes in its wake. The prognosis is bad for South Korea, but that should mean a good part of the Mideast and China must be reduced to rubble. Tough luck for them, but we won’t be worrying about their fate in Yonggary.

You can also forget the astronaut. Instead, Kim and co-screenwriter Seo Yun-sung follow Il-woo, the socially awkward scientist, who has been dating the bride’s sister, Soon-a. Il-woo seems to get along better with her bratty brother Icho, who takes it upon himself to investigate Yonggary, to find his Achilles heel—again, not unlike

Presumably, the original Korean print of
Yonggary is better. Presumably, fewer characters speak with English and Transatlantic accents, but that is part of the eccentric fun of the AIP dub. What matters is the suitmation is awesome. It was Cho Kyoung-min in the rubber Yonggary suit and he totally devastates every scale model in his path, like a tornado bearing down on a trailer park.

was featured in the phony Netflix MST3K reboot, but it really deserves more respect than that. Of course, the scenes of Yonggary look fake. They also look totally cool. If you can’t appreciate the charm of Yonggary dancing over the wreckage of a Seoul power plant, you must be a real wet blanket.

has some particularly inventive shots that still look striking, but both films are delightful kaiju throwbacks. If an original Korean print ever turns up, it will be a major cinematic event, but the AIP dub still captures the film’s can-do spirit (and also, tellingly, a good deal of skepticism regarding the ruling military’s judgment). Highly recommended for old school Kaiju fans, The Great Monster Yonggary screens from the only original surviving 35mm print this Friday (9/1) and as a double feature with Wangmagwi on 9/9 and 9/16.