1967 was a remarkable year for Asian giant monster films. Japan's Toho Studios, which had created and defined the Kaiju genre starting with Gojira in 1954, released Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster at the tail end of 1966. This was followed in 1967 by Son of Godzilla; both were directed by Fukuda Jun in his Godzilla series debut. Daiei's Gamera series, a blatant attempt to cash in on Toho's success, continued with Gamera vs. Gaos. Two other studios, Nikkatsu and Shochiku, also decided to jump into the genre, producing Dai Kyoju Gappa / Gappa, the Triphibian Monsters / Monster from a Prehistoric Planet and Dai Kaiju Girara / The X from Outer Space respectively.
Creatively, however, the genre had already peaked.
Toho had achieved a success comparable in contemporary terms to Jurassic Park with the release of King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962. By this time, Toho had given its audiences a wide variety of monster films: a classic black and white horror film (Godzilla), a two-monster slugfest (Godzilla's Counterattack, a novel idea at the time, but a film which set the template for most of the monster movies of the sixties and seventies), a full-color sci-fi spectacular (Rodan), and a family-oriented fantasy movie (Mothra), all of which were very successful; as well as some less impressive efforts, such as the huge robot penguin in The Mysterians, or Varan, a fine monster stuck in a mediocre movie. With King Kong vs. Godzilla, Toho changed direction once again and created a mix of monster movie and satire that audiences found refreshing. Toho went on to introduce monsters as diverse as Dogora, the space jellyfish; Ghidorah, the three-headed dragon; and a giant Frankenstein monster and his two furry offspring. Honda Ishiro's epic Destroy All Monsters, released in 1968, would come as the climax of the genre's development.
But by 1967, the genre was already faltering. Certainly the movies Toho produced after the monumental Destroy All Monsters lacked the sheer creative vigor of their predecessors, and came to rely on repetition and stock footage -- and on the fans' desire to see not a good movie, but "a Godzilla movie". Still, 1967 was the real turning point: compared to the stunningly imaginative monsters that had stomped across the screens in the early sixties, the giant shrimp, spiders and mantises of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla seemed pretty low-rent. That Daiei's distressingly childish Gamera films could seriously challenge Toho's market share also signaled that big changes were in store for the kaiju genre. As for the Kaiju-come-latelies at Nikkatsu and Shochiku studios, they were forced to play Monster Rancher to Toho's Pokemon; though interest would continue in some form through the mid-seventies, the giant monster movie was past its prime, and the other studios had just missed their opportunities.
This brings us to Dae Koesu Yongary, South Korea's entry into the genre. Made just as rubber-suit monster movies started to lose their edge noticeably, Yongary is not the worst of its kind. It's not even the worst monster movie of '67: that distinction goes to the god-awful X from Outer Space. It's just not very good. Intermittent flashes of real charm make it bearable, but for the most part, Yongary is terribly dull -- until it reaches its conclusion, at which point it takes a sudden, shocking nose-dive into poor taste.
The whole first act of the movie deals with a Korean astronaut (!) and his family. The astronaut has just got married, and is about to embark on his honeymoon when news of nuclear tests in China brings him back to active duty. The honeymoon bit is a noble but failed effort to bring a sense of sexual tension to the film. At the time, displays of on-screen affection in Korean cinema were subject to strict censorship, so the film makers were taking a real chance by introducing some mild sexual banter into a rubber-suit monster film. Unfortunately, the coy bedroom scene, in which the astronaut is so nervous he pretends to fall asleep, is more than a little embarrassing now. Tame as it is, it seems that the film makers were unfamiliar with this sort of scene, and uncomfortable with it.
I can't refer to the astronaut or his wife by their names, because their names are never given in the English-dubbed dialogue. In fact, the pair of them are usually referred to so obliquely that I'm pretty sure the people doing the dubbing didn't know the characters' names either. But the rest of the movie doesn't deal with the two of them very much. Instead, it focuses on the bride's sister, Ssu-na; her workaholic scientist boyfriend, I-lu; and, inevitably, her little kid brother I-cho (and I admit I'm guessing at the names and spellings).
Our first glimpse of I-cho comes after his big sister's wedding. I-cho uses a new invention of I-lu's, a sort of flashlight that causes itching in anyone it shines on, to annoy the newlyweds as they drive to their honeymoon. I-lu catches him, and scolds him for trying out an experimental device on his own relatives.
Back at Korea's National Space Research Center, the Center's mission controller and the Minister of Science are gravely concerned about the aftereffects of the mysterious nuclear tests. The tests have resulted in an earth tremor which behaves in a very unexpected way. Its epicenter seems to be moving in a straight line, directly toward the heart of South Korea. As usual in films of this sort, the Powers-That-Be meet, talk a lot, and sit on their hands while the situation goes out of control. Finally when the moving earthquake is about to hit their area, they go into action and declare a state of emergency.
The strangeness of this moving earthquake makes these seasoned scientists and military men think of an old legend, about a monster which lived underground and caused tremors. The monster's name was "Yongary". At the same moment, at the site of the earthquake, a reporter catches a glimpse of something huge pushing its way out of the earth. He manages to take a few pictures before he and his jeep are forced off the road by something unseen.
The reporter is found, covered in blood and in terrible shape, and (for some reason) he's brought back to the Space Center instead of to a hospital. He has time to thrust the battered camera at the Minister of Science before he collapses onto the floor. From the expressions on their faces, it seems as though the Minister and the Controller are actually saying "Ecch -- clean that dead guy off the floor, will you?" in the original Korean version. Anyway... once developed, the photographs reveal a gigantic, spiky-backed reptile emerging from the center of the earthquake. The officials make the connection right away: "It's Yongary!"
The Yongary suit is remarkably detailed, with four big spikes coming out of its tail, and a long ridge running along its back. The individual scales on its tail have been very carefully sculpted. Still, there's something wrong with the overall proportions of the costume, particularly when seen from the front, which make it always look like a man in a rubber suit. The monster's face has a goofy, almost canine expression, with a long tongue that wiggles when it roars. When Yongary breathes fire, you can see very clearly a nozzle at the back of its throat. Worst of all, the stuntman inside the suit is a lousy actor: Yongary ambles through the film with no real sense of menace at all.
The sound effects department also fell short in bringing Yongary to convincing life. A monster's roar is an important part of his character. Godzilla and Gamera in particular have memorable and very expressive voices. Yongary, though, doesn't so much roar or bellow -- he brays. He has one, basic, donkey-like "Eee-YAWWW" which he uses -- without any audible alteration -- through the whole movie. Amusingly, his roar frequently doesn't match his mouth movements, making it look as though he too has been badly dubbed.
For all Yongary's shortcomings, it has to be said that the rest of the effects work is equally hit-or-miss. While the earthquake scenes are fairly well handled, most of the other effects shots are really awful. In one scene, a botched composite makes it seem like the fleeing populace are eighteen feet high. One might also get the impression that all Korean buildings are hollow inside; the monster keeps stepping into huge buildings which seem to have no inner floors at all. The Koreans also seem much more squeamish about destroying their national landmarks on-screen than the Japanese are: though Yongary walks right up to the Pavilion of the Moon, he stops short of destroying it -- much to the disappointment of monster fans in other countries.
As the monster stomps into town, we're given a glimpse of what may have been the film makers' ultimate point: first, we see a Christian evangelist, large wooden cross in hand, urging the fleeing people to repent before it's too late. Next we see a group of materialistic businessmen, stuffing themselves with food as their friends hurry to leave. When someone stops to warn them that the monster is coming, they simply throw money at the man and go back to their feast. Next, we see a bunch of stoned or drunken teenagers, pouring beer on one another, and dancing in fits of lecherous abandon. Apparently, the film is trying to warn us that we've brought destruction upon ourselves with our wicked ways. Similar scenes pop up in Gamera and Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, where they seem equally ridiculous.
As Yongary trashes Seoul, I-lu tries to sneak up and get a closer look at the beast. Unbeknownst to him, little I-cho has followed him. Close behind both of them runs the anxious Ssu-na. When at last they meet, I-lu is wounded by a wayward piece of Styrofoam -- er, debris... and I-cho is separated from them. I-cho follows the monster to a refinery, where he watches in amazement as it drinks an entire tankful of oil. Thinking quickly, I-cho shuts off the oil supply to the tank, and Yongary gets mad. As the beast throws a tantrum, it accidentally wrecks a tank of a different chemical, one which smells terrible, freezes part of the monster's skin, and makes it itch. Hmm, thinks I-cho: could this be the monster's weakness?
Reunited with his family and I-lu, I-cho tells of his encounter with Yongary. I-lu whips up a batch of a precipitate of ammonia, which he thinks is the chemical that hurt the creature. Together they lure the monster to a burning fuel tank, where they give it a dose of the irritant. Yongary collapses.
This all leads to the goofiest and most endearing moment in the movie. I-cho is unhappy about what's happened to the monster, so while I-lu is working to refine the chemical, he sneaks away to see Yongary one more time. He takes the itching ray along with him. He shines the light on the inert beast, but the energy of the itch ray is enough to bring Yongary back to consciousness. Still smarting from the irritant, Yongary starts twitching and shuffling, much to I-cho's delight: a surf-music version of Korea's most famous folk-song, the Arirang, starts playing, and I-cho dances along with the monster.
This delightfully absurd moment doesn't last very long, because once awake, Yongary is quick to recover and start trampling the real estate again. Missiles and fighter planes fail to stop it, although they do seem to cause tremendous damage to the rubber suit... bits of the body and head tear off with each explosion, and sometimes parts of the suit burst into flames. We are led to believe that the monster is unharmed, until I-lu and the astronaut, together with both women and little I-cho, fly over in a helicopter to drop the chemical on Yongary.
Here I have to question the wisdom of the plan: why are two civilian women and a child along for the ride, seeing that every other aircraft that got near the beast has been destroyed? And why are the dumping this noxious chemical on him when he's not only close to a settled area, but is also standing by a river? They stand to do more damage to the environment than the monster does.
But then, sense has never been a requirement of the monster movies' Noble Last-Ditch Battle Plan. The helicopter flies just out of reach of the monster's fire-breath, and they dust it with the irritating chemical. Yongary begins to scratch furiously, finally collapsing half-in, half-out of the river. As it twitches spasmodically, it begins to hemorrhage from the rectum, bloodying the water. The scene is a very convincing, horribly realistic depiction of an animal's death, and it's completely out of place in an otherwise lightweight movie like this.
I-cho seems to get a feeling for the tastelessness of it all, because he interrupts the giggly celebration on the helicopter to ask: why was this necessary? Did we have to destroy Yongary, just because he got in our way? (Oh, and by the way, could you stop dousing him with lethal chemicals and let him die with a little dignity?)
After this, of course, it's time for the closing "what we learned from the monster" coda, in which Ssu-na agrees to marry I-lu, and little i-cho expresses his regret that Yongary had to die. And they live happily ever after.
The movie itself has not lived particularly happily ever after. The film makers obviously didn't take the movie particularly seriously, and neither have audiences. It used to turn up on television during the heyday of the Saturday afternoon Creature Feature; I doubt if it's been seen on American TV for a decade. A grainy print was released to video by the Orion group, along with The X from Outer Space and the badly-butchered Monster from a Prehistoric Planet; these tapes are long since out of print, though a restored, widescreen DVD of Monster... is available from Tokyo Shock, under its original title Gappa. Apparently, the folks at Orion couldn't even be bothered to watch the film all the way through: they say in their jacket summary that Yongary is rendered unconscious and then sent into space. Obviously, that's not what happens... either they were thinking of 1965's Gamera, or they watched the last fifteen minutes of Yongary with the sound off -- since the last shot is of a spacecraft zooming off into the stars.
Yongary was shown at the Pusan Fantastic Film Festival in 1999, where its nostalgia-inducing campiness may have helped steal some of the thunder from the recently-released Yonggary among Korean genre fans.
Dae Koesu Yongary was directed by a man named Kim Ki-duk, and this too has hurt the movie's chances for survival. There is a younger Korean director whose name is also Kim Ki-duk, who would have been about I-cho's age at the time Yongary was made (I'd like to make a joke here about the movie looking as if it had been directed by a seven-year-old, but that's not fair. It's only the script that seems to be the product of a seven-year-old). Kim the younger is establishing himself with a strong and controversial reputation. His approach to filmmaking seems to be worlds away from the generic commercial style of Yongary. Perhaps this is the reason the director credit suddenly disappeared from the IMDB's listing of the film: somebody somewhere was embarrassed to get the two confused. Imagine if a talented young film maverick came along, and his name was, say, John Guillermin... you get the idea.
And by the way, in case you're wondering: the monster's name is pronounced "Yong-ga-REE".
Yonggary -- and in case you're wondering, it's pronounced "Young Gary" -- was supposed to be a blockbuster. At the time of its first release in 1999, its creators and promoters at ZeroNine Entertainment were hailing it as (potentially) the breakthrough Korean film -- a super-special effects extravaganza that would hold up well by comparison to American action movies in the international market. It was touted as being everything that the American Godzilla had not been. "It's not what you expect," read the posters, and at one point in the dialog an airborne Marine says to his colleagues, "Compared to him, Godzilla's a pussy!"
I remember this very clearly. I had stumbled on news of the new Yonggary when I was searching the internet for information on the original, which I'd just inflicted on myself again. I saw the trailer, read the English blurbs, saw the new monster design -- loved the new monster design -- and even installed the screen saver on my PC at work. I couldn't wait for the movie to be released, and I really, really wanted it to be good... like the Heisei Gamera series. And of course I hoped that, like the new Gamera series, it would eventually be available in some form here in the US.
So what happened?
Yonggary did moderately well with Korean audiences, but not nearly as well as its promoters had planned. No international distributor stepped forward. And even though a good number of people went to see it, a lot of those people found it absolutely ridiculous. ZeroNine Entertainment pulled the film, rewrote and re-shot some of it, altered some of the less successful special effects, and released it again as Yonggary Upgrade 2000. The world said: Enh. In the meantime, another film, Jacky Kang's Shiri, usurped Yonggary's claim to be the great runaway hit of Korean cinema, out-performing even Titanic in Korean box-office receipts.
Now here we are, midway through 2001, and at last Yonggary's been released on a Hong Kong video CD and a major Columbia/TriStar DVD (Columbia seems to want to make up for the failure of their Godzilla by becoming the highest-profile American distributor of new Asian monster movies. Unfortunately, they have chosen to release Yonggary under the uninspired and uninspiring title Reptilian, which proves yet again that they have no clue about the monster movie market). At last, I've had a chance to catch up with this elusive addition to the international kaiju canon. And yes, the poster was right: it's not quite what I expected. It's what I was afraid of.
If you hated Godzilla (1998), there's a strong chance you will loathe Yonggary. Everything that was wrong with the Devlin/Emmerich film goes double for the Korean flick. The bulk of the picture deals with the interaction of the human characters, and (as usual) this is a big mistake. Fortunately, there's no love story in Yonggary, although this might have helped its box-office appeal. However, we do have to suffer through a lot of bad dialogue and ludicrous situations before the Big Y finally shows up, about 40 minutes into the movie.
Yonggary starts off with an archaeological expedition in South Asia: a group of spelunkers are exploring a cave. An old scientist called Professor Hughes is separated from the main group. Attempting to find the others, he comes across a trove of miraculously-preserved fossils... and the mummified body of a strange, man-like alien monster.
In the meantime, the main group, led by the remarkably unpleasant Dr. Campbell, finds an even more miraculously preserved field of dinosaur bones. Amid the bones, however, is the real treasure, the thing they've actually been looking for: a glowing red stalactite. The archaeologists express some misgivings about the curious stone, but Campbell orders the men to dig it up. As one man steps forward with an ax, Campbell ducks behind a cave wall. Sure enough, as the ax connects with the glowing rock, there's a tremendous explosion, and all the group except for the hidden Dr. Campbell are blown to tiny, smoldering pieces.
The fire of the explosion is sucked back into the strange stalactite. There, behind the exploded rock face, a set of strange hieroglyphics is revealed. "At last!" Campbell gloats, "It's mine, all mine! Mwahahahahaha!" or words to that effect.
This is the cue for one of the coolest parts of the movie: the opening credits. The camera pans over the hieroglyphics, and the weird characters resolve themselves into the names of the principal cast and crew. Mind you: the fact that I'm calling the opening credits one of the only interesting parts of the movie should give you a pretty good idea of what's in store.
The story resumes two years later, on a different dig in a different part of the world. We find this out only gradually, so at first we're inclined to think that they're on the same dig, which is confusing. Anyway, somewhere in an American desert, Dr. Campbell has unearthed the remains of the world's largest dinosaur, one which is 50 times the size of T. Rex. Unfortunately, the dig isn't going very smoothly. Not only is Campbell a putz, but there are also a series of unexplained accidents and deaths that plague the worksite.
The accidents aren't really accidents at all. From its position behind the moon, an alien spacecraft is watching the dig with great interest. Occasionally, in the middle of the night, the spacecraft shoots a beam of energy down onto the exposed dinosaur skeleton, which regenerates bit by bit. Sometimes workers are caught in the energy blast and fried; other times, the re-assembling fragments of bone tear through the flesh of innocent bystanders. Nobody notices all the strange goings-on, though (at least no one who lives to tell the tale).
A journalist named Bud Black shows up at the site to do some investigations. Campbell is wary of him at first, but soon accepts his presence; he needs someone to tell the world how important he is. It isn't long, however, before Campbell's ruthless pursuit of fame and fortune alienates both Black and Campbell's own assistant, Holly. After Campbell destroys a second roll of Black's film, containing shots of dead workers, Holly quits in disgust.
Holly is awaiting her flight back to her University when she is approached by the enigmatic Dr. Hughes. Hughes had attempted to make contact with Campbell previously, but Campbell hadn't allowed him to get a word in before ejecting him from the site. Now, figuring that Holly is in a better position to listen and believe him, Hughes explains to her about the previous expedition... and what he found there.
It seems that the hieroglyphics reveal much more than Campbell was ever able to understand. They foretell the coming of a great dinosaur who will be reborn to destroy the world. What's more, the mummified corpse in the cave has proven to be a unique find. It seems it's the remains of an alien, non-carbon based life form, and it's 200 million years old. How can they tell it's that old? Why, it's been carbon-dated.
Lord, Lord. I'm not a scientist, but I took basic science classes in high school, and I do know a little bit about the methods used by real archaeologists and paleontologists. Carbon dating measures the decay of carbon-14 atoms in a sample of organic material. It would make no sense to carbon date an alien, because we have no way of determining naturally-occurring levels of carbon-14 atoms in their original environment. This goes double for anything over 50 or 60,000 years old, beyond which carbon dating is useless. This goes triple if the alien life form is not carbon based. For a fossil alien 200 million years old, you'd need to go to potassium-argon dating, but even then you'd need to know a lot more about the alien's actual biology and the chemical and geological makeup of its home planet.
Holly very reasonably points out that as a scientist, she needs more than stories about alien invaders and reincarnated dinosaurs to make her believe him. Chagrined, Hughes goes off to try and stop Campbell by himself.
Suddenly, as Hughes disappears, Holly changes her mind. Off she goes to catch up with him. And along with her goes every last shred of believability the movie could hope for. Together they drive off to confront Campbell... but they arrive just in time to witness the disaster they've been trying to avert. The alien beam comes crashing down through the sky, and the ancient bones begin to grow new flesh. Yonggary rises from death, and immediately starts trampling people -- including Campbell -- with gusto.
This is the point where the movie takes off and actually becomes enjoyable. Before we get to the Good Bits, it's time to take a look at some more of the problems with the film:
From hints I've found here and there, in articles, reviews and summaries written about the film at various times, I think I can figure out a possible scenario for how the screenplay should have run: Dr. Campbell would have been contacted by the aliens with promises of knowledge and power, provided he helped them unearth their artifact. Campbell, knowing his excavation had a far bigger significance than any archaeologist could ever dream, would have gone to any length to do as the aliens said, while being unaware of their true aim. Instead of fortuitously showing up at the exact point in history when somebody unearthed Yonggary, this would put the aliens in control of their plan.
But for this all to work, including the translation bit, the Prophecy would have to have been written by someone else -- a human, perhaps a psychic or a shaman (oh god), or someone who received a message from other benign aliens as a warning, or even someone like the hero of Lovecraft's Shadow Out of Time, who finds a prehistoric manuscript written in his own handwriting... This would explain a number of the holes in the story, including Campbell's cry as he's about to re-enact the opening animation of Monty Python: "I created you!" This would make sense only if he had some inkling of the aliens' plan.
I'm tired of doing the film makers' work for them, so let's get on to the real reason to watch Yonggary: the monster battles. Yes, Yonggary is a wonderful kaiju, far better than his sixties namesake. In place of an underpaid stuntman in a stiff rubber suit, we have a computer generated reptilian athlete, with almost-but-not-quite human features that are far more expressive than any reptile. His fire-breath may not be as flashy as the new Gamera's or that of Godzilla 2000, but it's still among the best effects of its kind.
His scale seems to fluctuate: at one point he seems to flatten a whole building with one stomp, which seems excessive. He also seems to change color, from brown to blue to grey. No matter: he's the best actor in the whole film, and as long as he's on screen, Yonggary is monster movie heaven.
Had the rest of the movie been simply Yonggary smashing things, I would have no further complaints. Unfortunately, there's more. Naturally, there's a whole lot of "human drama" to play through, as a group of characters we care nothing about go through the motions of coming up with a plan to defeat the alien menace. Here the film makers manage to out-do Devlin and Emmerich in shallow characterization, bad dialogue, ridiculous science and a complete misunderstanding of the way the military operates. If you thought the soldiers in Godzilla 1998 were an insult to the US Army, wait until you see Yonggary -- as three Generals I wouldn't trust as librarians lead a UN Defense Force into an operation that's way out of UN territory. The major assault is undertaken by the world's least likely Marines, wearing experimental jet-packs that allow them to defy the principles of aerodynamics. One of these soldiers is equipped with a huge, heavy cannon -- but since the laws of gravity have been temporarily repealed for these guys, he's able to hold it out at full length from his body using only one hand, while hovering in mid-air. The squad Commander also likes to fire hundreds of rounds from his submachine gun while gripping the barrel tightly. Ouch.
There's also a problem with the timing of Yonggary's appearances and disappearances. Once the aliens figure out that the Earthlings have sussed their plans, they stupidly persist in sending their pet back into the fray. It would have made more sense for the writers to continue the battle to the climax, rather than interrupt it for a reason that makes no sense.
So, as we near the end of the movie, it's time to make another list of quibbles:
Director Shim Hyun-Rae is well known in Korea as a comedian, who specializes in dim-witted characters. In fact, the name of his company, ZeroNine, is taken from the name of one of his trademark characters. Shim's attempts to get Korean audiences to take him seriously have been undermined in part by his on-screen persona. It's unfortunate that the script of Yonggary was so idiotic; it only served to reinforce the impression that Shim the director is as goofy as Shim the actor.
There's enough good in Yonggary to make me interested in seeing Shim's current project, DragonWars, when it's finished. I'm also curious to see some of Shim's earlier films, including an early comedy about a dinosaur. But most of all, I'd be interested in seeing the first version of Yonggary, the version that was apparently so inept that it was mistaken for a comedy by those who even bothered to sit through it. Call me a weirdo, but I often find that a staggeringly inept film is more endearing than one which manages to be merely dumb.
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