From YONGARY to MONSTRUM, A Timeline of Korean Creature Features
Sep 04, 2018
- Writerby Pierce Conran
Blockbuster Ambitions and Hollywood Ties in Korea’s Monster Moviemaking
While shark attack blockbuster The Meg winds down its late summer assault on the world’s cineplexes, Korea is ready for its latest creature feature, the period action-thriller Monstrum, which is due out September 12, just in time for this year’s Chuseok holidays.
No stranger to monster movies, the Korean film industry has, over the years, churned out several surprising creature films that have become increasingly sophisticated as the local industry’s technical prowess continues to catch up with Hollywood. In fact, more than any other genre, the creature features have led to several collaborations between Korea and America, from Hollywood B-movies of yesteryear to one of the most publicized global films of 2017. While fortunes have been mixed across this selection of works, most have been profitable endeavors, with one title even holding the title of most successful Korean film of all time for eight years.
This week, KoBiz examines what fruits the Korean creature feature genre has spawned over the past 51 years.
Yongary: Monster from the Deep (1967)
It all starts with the greatest movie monster of them all, or at least Korea’s approximation of it, as classic director KIM Kee-duk (not to be confused with current filmmaker KIM Ki-duk) helmed 1967’s Yongary: Monster from the Deep, essentially Korea’s answer to the wildly successful Godzilla series in Japan, which was already seven installments deep into a franchise that now numbers over 30 films. Similar in tone to Toho’s Godzilla films of the mid-1960s, Yongary: Monster from the Deep was co-produced by Japan’s Toei Company, a rival of Toho, and featured several Japanese crew members well versed in monster moviemaking. Upon its release, the film was well-received by critics and performed quite well in theaters. It was also released overseas, earning the title Yongary: Monster from the Deep for its 1969 US TV broadcast release.
B-movie filmmaker Paul Leder traveled with his crew to Korea in 1976, where he worked with special effect artist PARK Kwang-nam to make A*P*E (1976), a giant simian film timed to coincide with the release of the highly anticipated King Kong remake in America that same year. This deliriously camp riff on the fame ape story was forced to add the line ‘Not to be confused with King Kong’ to its advertising (though the words King Kong remained in its title for many markets, including Korea where it was called ‘King Kong’s Counterattack’). Remembered for its cheesy effects and the image of its giant ape giving the audience the middle finger, A*P*E has become something of a cult classic.
It would be 23 years before a giant creature would return to Korean cinemas and when the time came it was SHIM Hyung-rae, a popular comedian known for his character Young-gu in the 1980s, who took hold of the reins. SHIM turned his hand to directing in the 1990s and became increasingly more ambitious, until he released his version of Yonggary, titled simply Yonggary (or Reptilian in some foreign markets), in the summer of 1999. Incorporating sci-fi elements and creative set pieces, Yonggary featured 124 detailed miniatures, a creature suit that took six months to design and extensive CGI work. The fifth top-selling Korean of 1999, Yonggary was an English-language production and the most expensive Korean ever produced at the time of its release, with a budget in excess of USD 10 million.
The Host (2006)
Following Yonggary, it would be another nine years before a monster waded into the Korean film industry. It was however well worth the wait as acclaimed filmmaker BONG Joon-ho, following his sophomore work Memories of Murder (2003), often cited as one of the greatest Korean films of all time, released his ambitious genre hybrid The Host (titled simply ‘Monster’ in Korean) in the summer of 2006. The movie made quick work of the record books to become the first Korean film to cross 13 million viewers at the box office. Not only a commercial success, The Host was praised for director BONG’s imaginative combination of genres and tones in the story of a family looking to save their daughter from a creature that emerges from the depths of the Han River in Seoul.
Following hot on The Host’s tail was once more SHIM Hyung-rae, who returned with what was again the most expensive Korean film of all time, the Los Angeles-shot and mostly English-language fantasy action-drama D-War (2007). Released in the summer of 2007, the film was no slouch at the box office with 7.86 million admissions, but given its exorbitant USD 35 million price tag (though rumors persist that the actual cost may have been somewhere between USD 75-99 million) and its failure to succeed in other markets, the pricey project ultimately proved a costly gamble. The tale of dueling dragons battling in Los Angeles was reported to be getting a Chinese capital-backed sequel, but there have been no new developments since the original announcement in 2016.
Korean creature features, due to financial constraints as well as their novelty factor, have tended towards larger budgets but in 2009, SHIN Jung-won bucked that trend with his B-movie countryside creature feature Chaw (2009). A mutant killer pig tears across the Korean countryside as a ragtag group forms to take him out in a story inspired by Hollywood B-movies and which sought to highlight environmental issues. A hybrid of action, comedy, and horror, the production also moved to America to complete special effects. The film proved a reasonable draw at the box office with 1.7 million admissions and was released in a number of international markets.
Sector 7 (2011)
Following his smash political drama May 18 (2007) KIM Ji-hoon teamed up with hitmaker JK Film for the oil rig monster action horror Sector 7 (2011), headlined by HA Ji-won. Yet despite a large budget and status as one of the most highly anticipated releases of the summer season in 2011, the film proved to be a disappointment as it drew just over two million viewers, a rare misstep for JK Film, known for Haeundae (2009), Ode to My Father (2014) and many other blockbuster titles. Meanwhile, KIM would return to hit status with his quick follow-up, the inferno action-drama The Tower, which was the end-of-year hit of 2012.
Making his second appearance on this list, BONG Joon-ho became the first Korean filmmaker to be backed by Netflix which his ambitious super pig environmental adventure fable Okja (2017), which had a much-publicized debut in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. AHN Seo-hyun stars as a countryside girl who goes after her pet super pig Okja, who is taken away from her by a multi-national corporation headed by Tilda Swinton. The critically acclaimed eco-fable boasted an array of global stars and once again proved an eclectic mix of styles and ideas from director BONG. Unlike most films on this list, Okja’s creature is portrayed as one of the heroes, rather than an antagonist.
This fall, the creature feature makes its long-awaited return with the release of Monstrum, third work by HUH Jong-ho, who previously made the Toronto-invited Countdown (2011) and the thriller The Advocate : A Missing Body (2015). Touted as the first-ever period creature feature in South Korea (though it is preceded by the cult 1985 film Pulgasari in North Korea), Monstrum takes place amidst a plague that grips the Joseon Era. Rumors of a monster in the hills persist and a general is brought back from retirement to investigate the claims. KIM Myung-min leads a cast that also features KIM In-kwon, rising star CHOI Woo-shik and LEE Hye-ri, a member of the popular girl group Girl's Day.