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BEAST IS EAST
Review: RJ Bland
South Korean film-making has been on top form of late. Bong Joon Ho's 'Parasite' can rightly claim to be the best release of the last decade (it did win four Academy Awards after all) but there are a clutch of others that aren't too far behind – and most of them can at least claim to be horror adjacent, if not out and out genre movies. Lee-Chang Dong's critically acclaimed 'Burning' and Yeon Sang-Ho's 'Train to Busan' are both fantastic movies in their own right and then we have 'The Wailing' (2016) and if you want to go back even further, the brutal but brilliant 'I Saw the Devil' (2010). So it's little wonder that when a South Korean period monster movie is released, there are high expectations. 'Monstrum' was released in its native country back in 2018 and did relatively well at the box office and it played at the Sitges Film Festival later that year too. However it's taken over 18 months for it to become available to UK audiences.
Set during the 16th century Joseon period, a plague is spreading around Mount Inwangsan and there are troubling rumour beginning to emerge that the disease is being spread by a mysterious (but terrifying) creature called Monstrum – who is simultaneously tearing people to pieces and leaving survivors infected. As a similar plague ravaged the area ten years previous, the locals go into panic mode (fair enough) and the King is forced to deal with the rumours before the Kingdom goes into a complete meltdown. But the King is unsure if the monster is actually real and fears that it may be a false story manufactured by his political rivals to undermine his authority. To get to the bottom of it, he sends out a search party to track down this elusive beast, if it in fact even exists. The group is made up of a group of 'tiger killers' as well as a rag tag bunch of soldiers, villagers and farmers. The King also enlists the help of a disgraced former General called Yun Kyum, who helps lead the search party – aided by his brother and adopted daughter.
One of the great things about South Korean films is their tradition of seamlessly blending genres. It's not always easy to clearly define them as one thing or another. 'Parasite' is part black comedy, part horror, part thriller, part drama and 'Train to Busan' perfectly melds together zombie horror, action and family drama. In the same vein, 'Monstrum' is a unique blend of monster movie, comedy and political intrigue. The first half of the film is much for focused on the latter two (although there is still some bloodshed). There's a lot of palace intrigue and we're introduced to a host of political players each with their own agenda. It's not rocket science but inattentive audience members may suffer during this period. At the midpoint the film transforms into a full on, special effects extravaganza however.
Admittedly, it's also a lot of fun. The one constant throughout 'Monstrum' is its sense of humour and never taking things too seriously. The relationship between Yun Kyum, our disgraced former general protagonist and his brother and daughter are as light-hearted and sweet as you'd expect – although once on the battlefield, they're formidably kick-ass. The effects are a bit hit and miss at times, with a few of the action scenes a bit too frenetic and the beast looking a bit too 'plastic' on occasion. However if you're looking for action and big monsters thrills then you won't be disappointed. Underneath that there is some commentary about who the real 'monsters' of society are – which although a little blunt at times – at least add a bit more weight to things.
'Monstrum' is a tad too predictable too in terms of where it all ends up however. The path to redemption is a well trodden one and most viewers will be able to plot the key story points from about 10 minutes in. It's pretty straightforward; you know who the heroes are and you know who the villains are – there is no real grey area. Some will dig that old fashioned binary style but for others it will feel a bit too safe.
The ending is also a bit off putting too. Without giving anything away, it's the kind of thing you'd expect a 90's TV murder mystery to attempt, not a South Korean monster movie. Although it leaves a slightly odd taste in the mouth it ultimately doesn't detract from the fact that on the whole, it's an action filled romp that makes for an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours.
Although it doesn't match other recent South Korean genre films in terms of quality or originality, Monstrum is still an affable genre mash up which offers some fun monster action and a clutch of affable characters.
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