The giant monster movie — what the Japanese call the daikaiju movie — is, if you’ll excuse me saying so, kind of a big deal. There are those of us for whom giant monsters, and the sense of terror and awe and grandeur that they can evoke, are part of why we became movie buffs.
Perhaps for that very reason — that it’s a type of movie that connects most potently with small children — the genre has long remained immature. Giant monster films understandably don’t tend to lavish great care on complex themes or subtle dialogue and characterizations.
Even the special-effects spectacle hasn’t always been state of the art: For every elegant exercise in stop-motion by Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen, there are a dozen flicks featuring some poor slob blundering around in a monster suit, kicking over flimsy model buildings or, in more recent decades, a rampaging titan rendered in sub-par CGI. This imagery is as likely to elicit a snort of derision as a gasp of wonder from an adult.
There are exceptions to this, however, and Nacho Vagalondo’s new monster picture Colossal, opening here in the Valley this weekend, is one of them. It stars Anne Hathaway as a washed-up journalist, an alcoholic screw-up who comes to the realization that she has a strange connection to a gargantuan creature that’s been materializing in Seoul, South Korea.
The film obeys many of the genre’s rules, right down to providing the monster with a giant robot opponent. Even so, this is a genuinely original departure from the template of the irradiated mutant or unfrozen prehistoric lizard or crab or whatever, and the efforts of scientists and military officials to exterminate it — the conflict, here, is instead rooted in painfully plausible interpersonal resentments.
Colossal is also notable for its setting, or rather its two settings. The strand featuring Hathaway and her friends takes place in a small town in upstate New York, but the city through which the monster rampages is on the other side of the world, in South Korea.
Many countries have produced giant monster movies. The genre as we know it originated in the U.S., with the original Lost World and King Kong, but towering cinematic beasts have come out of countries ranging from England (The Giant Behemoth, Gorgo, Konga) to Denmark (Reptillicus).
The country we tend to associate with the genre is, of course, Japan, thanks to the Toho all-stars like Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra, not to mention Daiei’s flying turtle Gamera. But the Korean Peninsula has also been the haunt of a number of titanic terrors. Here are a few of the most notable (available on home video and/or online):
If you grew up watching monster pictures on TV in the '70s, there’s a good chance you’ll remember Yongary. The title character of the 1967 South Korean Godzilla knockoff Yongary, Monster from the Deep was a huge monstrous fire-breathing reptile that attacks Seoul.
If you remember nothing else about the flick, you probably remember the scene in which Yongary suddenly, inexplicably starts dancing, to a guitar riff on the soundtrack, while a little boy watches and laughs with delight. Even on the movie’s own terms, it makes no sense, but it’s entertaining.
This one is the creation of a poor blacksmith in medieval Korea. Thrown in jail by a warlord because he won’t make weapons, the man molds a tiny horned figure out of rice. His daughter then accidentally pricks her finger while sewing gets some blood on the little monster. It comes to life and promptly starts eating metal, starting with the needle, and growing in size. Soon it’s grown into an enormous Asian version of the Golem, fighting for the peasants against the warlord, whose metal weapons it finds appetizing.
Though capably made and not without a certain pacifist-communist charm, this 1985 movie is best known for the strange circumstances of its production: This is a North Korean monster pic. The South Korean producer-director, Shin Sang-ok, claimed he made the film while a hostage, having been kidnapped in 1978 by agents of Kim Jong-Il, and held in North Korea, along with his actress wife, as a reluctant booster of that country’s film industry.
The year after Pulgasari was released, Shin and his wife escaped. He landed in Hollywood, where he worked, under a pseudonym, on the 3 Ninjas pictures before moving, at long last, back to South Korea. But Pulgasari would have one more incarnation…
The Legend of Galgameth (1996) isn’t a version of ancient Mesopotamian myth from someone who misheard the name “Gilgamesh.” The title character of this excruciating, riotous fantasy is a vaguely dinosaur-like beast who becomes pals with a boy-prince.
It was shot in Romania and directed by an American, Sean McNamara, who later helmed 2015’s sweet Valley-set inspirational drama Spare Parts. So, you may reasonably ask, what’s the Korean connection? It’s a semi-remake of the aforementioned Pulgasari, with a script by Shin Sang-ok, billed here as “Simon Sheen.”
In this sort-of-remake of the 1967 Yongary — it’s unclear why it was deemed necessary to add a second “g” to the name — the creature is a massive prehistoric monster skeleton with a gemstone lodged in its skull. It’s excavated by a power-mad scientist, then re-cloaked in its flesh by aliens bent on invading earth, who sic it on the human race.
As with many Japanese monster flicks, the version that made it to these shores, retitled Reptilian, was reshot and re-edited to insert Western actors and English dialogue around the special-effects sequences. But while the monster has some personality, the computer-generated effects aren’t very, well, effective. And whatever the quality of the dialogue in the Korean version, in the U.S. version the actors’ lines are appallingly insipid: “Compared to this guy, Godzilla is a pussy!”
Not so much.
Like Yonggary, the monsters in the South Korean fantasy released here as Dragon Wars: D-War were computer-generated. Unlike Yonggary, the effects were superb. The imagery, at times, gives the sense of an ‘80s-era heavy metal album sleeve or a sword-and-sorcery paperback’s cover, something by Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo, come to life.
The Imoogi, or Imugi, are giant, supposedly legendary dragons who have returned to earth to constrict skyscrapers and do battle with helicopters, and these furious-faced serpents are among the most vividly-realized of cinematic dragons. In pretty much every other respect the movie, at least the version shown here, which included an exposition-spouting role for the unfortunate Robert Forster, was brain-numbingly imbecilic. But the dragons themselves were everything one could ask for.
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Released in the U.S. as The Host, this 2006 saga features an enormous mutant beast, sort of a sourpussed, elephant-sized lungfish with an assortment of fangs, a prehensile tongue, and a tail that doubles as a tentacle. It crawls out of the Han River in Seoul, rampages about killing people, and then returns to the river, carrying with it a splendid little schoolgirl, Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung).
The girl’s father, a beer-soused, brain-fried loser who works — that is, he sleeps at the counter — at a riverside food stand, presumes she is dead, but later, he gets a cellphone call from her. The resourceful girl is still alive, trapped in the monster’s lair in the sewers. He can’t get the authorities to believe she’s alive, though, so he and his squabbling, neurotic family — his frazzled, guilt-haunted father, his disgusted college-boy brother, and his wan sister, an archery champ who chokes in competition — must band together, arm themselves, slip out of quarantine, and try to rescue Hyun-seo on their own.
It’s a movie about family values, certainly. Director Bong Joon-ho is saying that family means the people who put aside their differences and come looking for you when a gargantuan fish-monster carries you off to the sewers. But it isn’t sentimental about family, or about anything else. The movie’s take on mainstream society — the government, the military, the police, medical science, Korea, America — borders on Kafkaesque at times. It’s bitterly funny and bitterly painful, but it never descends to cynicism — for all the jaundice of his view, Bong isn’t ready to write off the human race just yet.
Thus, for all the originality and clammy horror of the monster effects, there are also magical moments, like a matter-of-fact yet extraordinarily touching dream sequence in which the sought-after Hyun-seo — clearly the best member of the family — silently joins the searchers at a meal. And the ending is hard and terrible and wounding and redemptive, like a sad fairy tale.