Monday, July 8, 2013

Yongary, Monster from the Deep (Keukdong Entertainment, Toei Company, American International TV, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a 1967 Korean monster movie called Yongary, Monster from the Deep, which I had acquired from an download from a series called “Shocker Internet Drive-In.” Each of these downloads contains two movies that could well have been shown at particularly desperate drive-ins as well as authentic trailers from other, equally tacky movies of the time (like Son of Godzilla and King Kong Escapes!, as well as a marginally better one, the first Mothra), promos for the refreshment counter (you were even invited to come to the theatre early and use their refreshment counter for dinner!) and other things — including a weirdly anachronistic little movie with the “Mother” song promoting Mother’s Day for 1934, something you’d have hardly likely seen in a 1967 drive-in. They also showed a brilliant cartoon in the Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny series called Southern Fried Rabbit, a minor masterpiece of anarchic humor in which the gimmick is that Bugs Bunny is trying to sneak south because he’s heard there’s a bumper crop of carrots in Alabama, only guarding the Mason-Dixon line is a ferocious Confederate bitter-ender who, like Harry Langdon’s character in Soldier Man (1926) and some of the real-life Japanese soldiers found on Pacific atolls years after World War II, doesn’t realize his war is long since over. Not surprisingly, that was a lot more entertaining than Yongary, which was billed on the site as an attempt by the Korean film industry to duplicate the success of the Godzilla movies from neighboring Japan. I didn’t realize just how closely the Korean filmmakers — writer/director Kim Ki-Duk and his writing partner Seo Yun-Sung — copied the Godzilla formula.

It begins at a wedding for two young Korean only children — we know they’re only children because their parents tell us he’s the only son/she’s the only daughter they have — named Ilo (Oh Yeong-il) and Suna (Nam Jeong-im). As they drive away on their honeymoon Ilo and Suna start itching uncontrollably — thanks to Ilo’s bratty younger brother Icho (Kwang Ho Lee), who’s borrowed an experimental ray gun from Ilo’s science lab and is aiming it at them. Then Ilo gets called away from his honeymoon because he’s also an astronaut in Korea’s space program (did you know Korea had a space program? Me neither) and he’s assigned to do a reconnaissance mission from outer space to check on some earthquakes that are affecting central Korea. Only it’s not an earthquake; it’s Yongary (whose name, incidentally, is pronounced with the accent on the last syllable — “Yawn-Gah-RHEE”), a monster not from the depths of the ocean (as I’d assumed from the title) but from the depths of the earth, who not only looks amazingly like Godzilla (the only difference is he has a single unicorn-like horn sticking out of his head) but goes through all the predictable Godzilla moves, stamping out balsa-wood model buildings and easily fending off the assaults of the Korean military, including what I presume was every wind-up toy tank the Woolworth’s in Seoul had in stock. It turns out that Yongary not only exhales fire but, in order to fuel himself, lives on drinking crude oil and gasoline — something that’s discovered by that obnoxious kid Icho (frankly, I was hoping Yongary would eat Icho, choke on him and die, thereby eliminating both the movie’s most unsympathetic characters in one go, but alas we were not so lucky) — and from that older brother scientist, astronaut and incredibly frustrated newlywed Ilo figures out that firing (toy) missiles at it will only make it stronger. Instead he works out a precipitate of ammonia that can be sprayed on Yongary by air, and himself flies the helicopter to do the job.

Yongary is a singularly tacky movie, beset by all the ills of the U.S. releases of the Godzilla movies — hilariously inaccurate dubbing of the Korean dialogue into English — as well as some ones unique to this Korean knockoff, including virtually no background music when Yongary is on the rampage and some shots of the nighttime sky (or at least a painted backdrop thereof) that last so long without visible change they give one the impression that for some reason the Korean producers called in Derek Jarman to direct their monster movie. For the most part Yongary is a bore — unless you get off at the spectacle of a man in a flimsy monster suit ( “credits” Cho Kyoung-min with playing Yongary and actor Ted Rusoff with supplying Ilo’s voice in the English version) stamping out balsa-wood models, though there are a few nice moments, including one in which Yongary manages to slice a Jeep in half with his flame and another in which a rock band (one we’ve previously heard on the soundtrack in a scene apparently meant to represent what there was of a hippie scene in Seoul in 1967) strikes up on the soundtrack and, much to Icho’s joy (he’s watching the scene), Yongary actually starts to dance to the music. A few more shots like that and Yongary would at least have been watchable as camp, but as it stands it’s a testament to the professionalism of the guys at Toho Studios (especially Inochiro Honda, the director of most of the Godzilla films) that they did this formula so much better than their Korean imitators. I joked about how this movie came to be; likely the producers had just released an epic four-hour biopic of Syngman Rhee and were seeing audiences bypass the theatres showing it in favor of ones offering these sci-fi horror cheapies from Japan, so they sat through a Godzilla film and said, “We can do that!” Well, they could and they couldn’t …