Can Korea’s own kaiju icon stand on its own two feet?
“That’s one way to start a honeymoon.”
Every country should have its own big kaiju film. America has King Kong, Japan has Godzilla and the UK has whatever the hell this is. And then there’s Yongary, created as Korea’s answer to the King of Monsters. His first film – subtitled Monster from the Deep in the American release (despite not coming from the ocean), very much feels like it’s trying hard to copy the Toho formula. Needless to say, it suffers a little bit from that. I’m not going to spend much time on the plot of the film as it’s all very much the basic kaiju fare: astronauts and scientists work together to fight off a creature that has awakened due to some bullshit humanity’s been up to. Yongary makes it very clear early on that it’s 100% a shameless Godzilla rip-off, and proceeds to play kaiju mad libs without bothering to actually fill in any blanks.
Technically, there’s a lot to like about Korea’s first kaiju film. The costume is pretty decent for the time, and a lot of effort has gone into technical aspect such as giving the creature the ability to blink, as well as the smaller design details like the spikes running down his tail. The cinematography is actually pretty good, with some interesting dutch angles and high quality blocking throughout the film. The credit here goes to director Kim Ki-duk (not the one you’re thinking of), who approaches the film less like it was a kaiju film and more like a serious drama.
It’s a shame that everything about Yongary, then, is so undeniably goofy. From the laughably hand-waved origin story (nuclear testing in the Middle East awoke him) to the frankly comically long scenes of the monster just, like, scratching himself everything about Yongary is so, so dumb. Despite scenes of destruction, he’s just not much of a threat. In fact, he’s so unthreatening that the little boy has no problem just hanging out near him, or being in a helicopter that could easily be blown out of the sky. Yongary has the distinction of being the least intimidating flagship kaiju of any country, including Thailand. At least it paved the way for the eventual coming of Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece The Host, so we have that to thank it for.
Yongary is frustratingly shallow. Coming out at a time when Korea (and its cinema) was still creating its own identity, separate from its complicated and oft-referenced history, this was a perfect opportunity. Make Yongary a representation of a nation torn in half as he literally rips the ground asunder. Make him as powerful and as scary as the idea of Japanese imperialism. Instead, some nukes shake the ground. Godzilla’s origin is deeply rooted in Japan’s nuclear history. For Yongary to use something so similar is both lazy and short-sighted.
The film more or less only exists in a dubbed format, through its American release. Usually this would be something of a downer, but the dubbing is actually pretty decent (if only so-so in its delivery) and keeps a lot of the character’s names intact without having to resort to Americanisms to make the film more relatable to a Western audience. The print is also a great quality making this one of the few American releases that have actually benefitted the original movie.
Yongary is nothing special as a standalone film. For Korea’s first attempt at a kaiju film, it’s not too bad on a purely technical level. It looks decent enough – if oftentimes a bit silly – and it more or less plays everything straight. Yeah, a lot of it doesn’t really work, such as the scientist’s out-of-nowhere internal-organ-killing ammonia-based solution but frankly it doesn’t matter. Yongary is impressive when viewed from a point of view of its own time, and a good film to chuckle at with some friends. It’s hard to be too harsh on it. Godzilla’s done way worse, but then again he at least never bled out of his arse until he died.
Verdict: Yongary is something of a missed opportunity, but it still mostly holds up as a kaiju film.
Overall entertainment: 5/10
Violence: Some decent destruction/10
Models: Wouldn’t be out of place in Thunderbirds
If you had to evacuate and could only take one item: It would have to be a globe, or your carpet surely
Death: Yongary deserved a little more dignity
Yongary: Monster from the Deep (1967)
Also known as: 대괴수 용가리 “Taekoesu Yongary”; lit. Great Monster Yongary
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Writer: Kim Ki-duk, Seo Yun-sung
Oh Yeong-il – Il-woo
Kwang Ho-lee – Icho
Nam Jeong-im – Soon-a
Lee Sun-jae – Kwang-nam
Moon Kang – Kim
Cho Kyoung-min – Yongary