God does not want Korea to make giant monster movies. Whatever the quality such movies may eventually have, the films always have bizarre, complicated production histories that keep people from seeing them. Monster Wangmagwi was in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most extras used in the making of a movie, but no amount of web searching can produce any images from it. Pulgasari was made with kidnapped labor. The most recent evidence of heaven's ill will towards Korean kaiju is Yonggary, a fairly high-budget film that was intended to be an international breakthrough film. The flick's breakthrough was stymied by one little fact: practically no one has seen it.
Filmed in English with largely American actors, Yonggary (loosely based on Yongary, Monster from the Deep) may be (for Westerners) the most accessible Asian monster film ever made. The production company that made Yonggary was so set on selling it overseas that they barely released it in Korea. Meanwhile, the film will probably have a tough row to hoe outside of Korea, due to shoddy effects and American actors who aren't exactly well known in their native country.
"Let's face it, the Chinese army
could kick our butts!"
In a brief prologue we are introduced to Professors Campbell (Richard B. Livingston, best known as Manager #3 in What's Love Got to Do with It?), and Wendell Hughes (Harrison Young, the biggest star in the movie, due to his turn as Ryan in the framing sequences of Saving Private Ryan), both paleontologists. In a large cave complex somewhere in Southeast Asia, Campbell finds a column inscribed with strange hieroglyphs. Simultaneously, Dr. Hughes discovers the fossilized body of an extraterrestrial, but before the other explorers can investigate his cries, tragedy strikes the party. The inscribed column explodes, killing the entire expedition except for Campbell, who remembered his paleontologist training that warned against the explosive potential of mysterious glowing things in caves.
Two years later Bud Black (Brad Sergei, unforgettable as Drinking Buddy in The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper), a tabloid reporter, is assigned to cover a dig supervised by Campbell. Judging by the swaggering of the scientist, he has hit the mother lode. The dig is plagued by mysterious deaths, mostly related to an alien ship that (unbeknownst to the excavation crew) is floating over the site and occasionally blasting the area. As Campbell alternately bribes and threatens the crew into working despite the accidents, Bud begins to have misgivings:
Godzilla vs. (John Carpenter's) The Thing
Black: This is too weird. We got this crazy-ass control freak professor, a fanatic old man who should be doing tours in a museum somewhere, a cute bitchy chick, more dead bodies than a Tarantino flick, and a two hundred million year-old big-ass lizard.
Campbell: Why the worried look, Mr. Black?
After watching an entire film full of dialogue like this we began to wonder if the actors were just improvising. The screenplay is credited to Marty Poole, who has written a couple of other cliché-ridden scripts for foreign companies. If Mr. Poole is responsible for the dialogue here, he wasn't taking his assignment very seriously. Furthermore, the film contains all the scenes that are supposed to be in a giant monster film, but there is nothing connecting them. Few characters run all the way through the film. Bud Black, for instance, disappears without any explanation.
"I keep telling you, G.I. Joe: The Live-Action
Movie is filming over there.
You're on the wrong set."
Dr. Hughes, who has been missing for the last two years after the film's prologue, appears at the dig and makes some wild eyed pronouncements about prophecies of doom. He manages to convince Campbell's assistant, Holly (Donna Philipson, the aforementioned "bitchy chick" who has no other credits but looks like a grown-up Rose McGowan), that something is going on. Hughes and Holly return to the dig site to try and stop the excavation, but they arrive too late.
The alien starship that has been hovering in orbit makes its move. A special laser-beam-thingy infuses the skeleton with life and Yonggary lives again! Campbell, caught up in the megalomania that got him to this point, beckons to Yonggary, calling him his "creation" and commanding him to obey. Yonggary has a very concise reply: he steps on Campbell's head.
At this point we must halt for a point of procedure: the aliens were waiting for Yonggary's skeleton to be excavated? Doesn't that seem a bit primitive for a civilization capable of interstellar travel and artificial resurrection? We can imagine a conversation between the heads of the alien military: "Gee, boss, we were going to start that invasion of Earth, but the Earthmen haven't dug up the monster's skeleton yet. Maybe next year." Regular readers will recall that the aliens who created Zarkorr buried him under a mountain just so he'd look cool bursting from inside it!
There are easier ways to
use frequent flyer miles.
The aliens teleport Yonggary to a nearby city (probably Los Angeles) and use mind control to make him attack the populace. What follows is a series of scene switches that are very familiar to anyone who has watched a handful of Godzilla movies. The heroes find their way to the government's command center and watch from a safe distance as Yonggary trashes the armed forces that hastily respond to the threat of a gigantic lizard visiting a major metropolis. Hughes just happens to have a computer disc full of alien hieroglyphics, and translating the alien graffiti will, of course, be the key to defeating the invasion. This is yet another monster movie in which the stubborn military leaders must be gradually brought around to realize the obvious by smarter but powerless scientists.
This movie does give us a somewhat more varied slate of military weapons than we have seen in these films as of late. Chief among them are the "God's Wing" rocket packs that the marines use to engage Yonggary. It is a scientific fact that rocket packs are intensely cool and that no truly bad film has ever featured a rocket pack. (Well, maybe Spitfire.) It's not a coincidence that the best movie of the year so far, Spy Kids, featured rocket packs prominently. This being a monster film, though, the superior maneuverability of rocket packs doesn't keep Yonggary from frying most of the marines where they fly.
Cyker, looking for a Gelfling?
Luckily for humanity, Hughes and Holly manage to translate the prophecies just in time. There is some confusion because the aliens managed to misspell the word "diamond" in their native tongue, but never mind. The Marines manage to free Yonggary from alien control, so the aliens send a second monster to finish the job. This second monster is Cyker, and he looks like he was constructed from elements of the urRu, the Skeksis, and the Garthim from The Dark Crystal.
The film's ambition does it some credit: there is plenty of city destruction, some space battles, Marines zooming about with rocket packs and laser guns, and a completely computer-generated monster-vs.-monster slugfest, probably a first. Although we were often caught up in the exuberance of jet-propelled soldiers and clashing behemoths, our enthusiasm was dampened by the second-rate special effects. The CGI creatures are poorly integrated in the backgrounds, and often seem to be of indeterminate color. Ten years ago this would have been groundbreaking stuff, but after seeing the likes of Gamera 3, Yonggary is too cartoonish to take seriously. Still, kaiju fans will likely find a place in their hearts (and on their video shelves, once the DVD comes out) for this Korean cousin. Certainly children enamored of the likes of Pokemon will take to it, and we wouldn't be surprised if that final fight between humongous creatures inspired a few backyard battles.
* We've seen a trailer for the film that includes scenes of Bud coveting a stolen computer disc. Nothing even similar is included in the film, so it's probable that an entire subplot was cut out of the version we saw. Back!
*This brings up an interesting point. There are allegedly two versions of this film. The first, with the title Yonggary, was released in Korea in 1999. Then a second version, supposedly with new special effects, was released in 2001, titled either "2001 Yonggary" or "Yonggary vs. Cyker" depending on which language you speak. We're honestly not sure which version we saw. The special effects seem to be the same as those in trailers we saw before the "Upgrade" version was announced, but we have never managed to find any pictures of the upgraded special effects. Either captures from the "Upgrade" version have yet to make it the web, or the differences are too subtle to distinguish on a casual viewing. Back!