Sunday, October 4, 2009

I'll buy that for a dollar: Yongary, Monster From The Deep (South Korea, 1967)

Now that the reputations of Eiji Tsuburaya and Ishiro Honda have been rehabilitated, films like Yongary, Monster From The Deep are more important than ever. Those men are now rightly considered geniuses worthy of our reverence, rather than as purveyors of movies in which men in silly monster suits stomp on toys. But what if you don't feel like respectfully marveling at the level of finely crafted detail in Tsubaraya's miniatures, or the deep layers of allegory in Gojira? What if you just want to laugh at men in silly monster suits stomping on toys?

Well, that's why we have on hand those few competing kaiju efforts that Tsuburaya's and Honda's Toho output consigned to the margins. I'm talking about stuff like Shochiku's The X From Outer Space, Nikkatsu's Gappa, The Triphibian Monster, and, of course, Yongary.

Yongary is South Korea's most widely known entry in the Kaiju boom of the mid 60s, thanks largely to it being purchased by AIP and dubbed for American television. It is not, however, the country's only such film. In the 60s alone, it was followed by Space Monster, Wangmagwi in 1967, and preceded by a few years by 1962's Pulgasari. While both of those titles inhabit a circle of obscurity even deeper than that of Yongary, it is Pulgasari that holds the honor of precipitating one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of Korean cinema, if not also in the history of relations between the country's North and South. I speak, of course, of Kim Jong-Il's kidnapping of noted South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife for the purpose of remaking Pulgasari to North Korean specifications in the 1980s.

For its part, Yongary was directed -- not under duress, as far as I know -- by Kim Ki-Duk. Though I don't think we're talking about the same Kim Ki-Duk who's responsible for recent disturbing psychosexual art films like The Isle and Samaritan Girl. I could be wrong, however. Anyway, whoever directed it, Yongary is marked by a charming crudity. At the same time, I have to say that its special effects are no worse than those of many Japanese Tokusatsu television series of its era, those produced by Tsuburaya included. It's just that Yongary obviously aspires to be so much more, and hence its inherent adorableness.

The film starts with some business about a space capsule, and then we're told about some kind of traveling earthquake that's heading straight toward South Korea. I'm not really clear on whether those two things were meant to be related, or whether it's the fault of me or the filmmakers that I missed the connection. To tell the truth, when I pay a dollar for a film, I'm really just looking for something that I can throw on while I have a drink, check my email, and do whatever, so I'm not really going to be subjecting its various narrative details to close scrutiny. In other words, those of you who were hoping for a detailed synopsis are just going to have to suck it.

By the way, while a traveling earthquake might sound terrifying to many of you, I think it would be awesome, because the advance warning would for once allow me to make sure that I had my pants and shoes within easy reach when it struck. That's, of course, assuming that it struck in the wee hours, as the last major quake I was in, L.A.'s Northridge quake, did. On that occasion, however, I received a handy instruction in how you can actually manage to entirely dress yourself before even waking up. Seriously, within a fraction of a second of that quake striking, I awoke to find that I'd somehow managed to leap out of bed, find and put on all of my clothing, and get my ass under a doorway before even consciously registering any of what was going on. A good thing, really, because when I looked back at the bed where I had been slumbering, there was a bookcase lying across it. San Francisco's Loma Prieta quake didn't pose any such problems (yes, I've been fortunate enough to be at whichever end of California was suffering one of the state's worst earthquakes of the last twenty years when it was occurring), as it was considerate enough to take place during work hours, when most people already have their pants and shoes on. Unless they're whores, of course. Or Tarzan.

Anyway, as you might have guessed, the traveling earthquake turns out all along to have been Yongary, the fabled Monster From The Deep, and once he makes his appearance on the surface, it's time for some concerted smashing of tiny buildings and tanks. One of the things I like about Yongary is how it keeps its narrative very basic. There are no subplots about gangsters and stolen diamonds, or corrupt businessmen, or space princesses; just people wanting to kill Yongary and Yongary stepping on them. Granted, those sequences that involve the film's human stars do seem to have a strange, somnambulant quality -- sort of as if everyone were trying to act while submerged underwater -- but that may be as much due to the affectless English dub that AIP saddled the film with as it does with the original performers. The kid who voiced the film's "Kenny" surrogate, in particular, recites his lines as if he's being forced to read his own ransom note.

Yongary also includes that famous moment where Yongary breaks the fourth wall by suddenly starting to go-go dance to the twangy guitar music that's playing on the soundtrack. And then at the end, when Korea finally kills him, he appears to be bleeding out of his ass. After that, people seem to spend an awful lot of time standing around congratulating themselves, but, when you look at the finished product, who would begrudge S. Korea their moment of pride. They set out to make a kaiju film that aspired to the grandeur of Godzilla, but with a tenth of the budget and -- judging from what stands in for crowd scenes here -- about a thousandth of the extras. And they, of course, failed. But in the process they made a film that allowed me to once again laugh idiotically at the spectacle of a grown man in a rubber suit kicking around toy tanks without having to worry about someone chiding me about how the person who made it was actually quite a genius. Thank you, Yongary.


Prof. Grewbeard said...

i've seen this one and The X From Outer Space about a hundred times, they ARE fun. Gappa was a thrill for me as a child, but doesn't grab me the same way now, despite some very impressive effects sequences. maybe it's the omnipresence of the Japanese kid in blackface. oh, but one of my favorite things about Yongary is the guy in the vest who's dubbed like James Mason!...

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

I have a deep and abiding hatred for this one, despite the go-go dancing monster and the fatal rectal bleeding. I think it's the human astronaut/super spy hero's fault, or whatever that guy is supposed to be.

Todd said...

None of the characters in the movie registered with me enough for me to have any feelings for them as strong as hatred -- but, again, I wasn't exactly paying scrupulous attention. That said, Prof's mention of the old Korean guy in the vest who spoke with a fusty British accent did jog my memory a bit. That guy was kind of awesome.

Keith said...

Didn't they also attack Yongary with itching powder or something?

I haven't seen this one in years. All I remember is the nasally "Hey Yongary's dancing!" line, with the kid imitating Yongary's Ace Face-like moves. They should go on "Dancing with the Stars" alongside that monkey dancin' kid from Six Ultra-Brothers.

Todd said...

Yeah, the itching thing immediately preceded the whole ass bleeding thing. It's like they somehow managed to turn Yongary into one big hemorrhoid.