Yongary, Monster from the Deep / Great Monster Yongary / Taekoesu Yonggary (1967/1969) -**
If the number of films produced and the number of studios producing them are your yardstick, then it’s tough to dispute the premise that the years 1966 and 1967 marked the apogee of the big rubber monster in Asia. Gamera was going strong, and though the Godzilla series had already entered its long period of slow decline, nobody seemed to notice that at the time. Toho were still producing respectable numbers of non-Godzilla monster movies. Daiei had, in one frantic spasm of creativity, cranked out three Daimajin movies in a single year. Toei had gotten back in the game with The Magic Serpent. Both the Nikkatsu and Shochiku studios picked 1967 to stake their belated kaiju eiga claims with Monster from a Prehistoric Planet and The X from Outer Space. And perhaps even more significantly, 1967 was the year that kaiju mania struck its first roots outside of Japan, when South Korea got into the act and brought forth Yongary, Monster from the Deep/Taekoesu Yonggary. What’s surprising about Yongary is how much effort seems to have gone into it, at least technically speaking. The budget was obviously agonizingly low, and the movie features some of the worst matte shots of all time, but there’s an enormous amount of miniature scenery getting smashed, and the monster suit itself is at least as good as what Toho was serving up in the late 1960’s. Such a shame, then, that the people responsible for this film didn’t feel the need to put commensurate effort into the acting, direction, or screenplay.
It is the natural impulse of a rational mind to try to make sense of what’s put before it. I don’t advise doing that with Yongary, Monster from the Deep— you’ll only hurt yourself. Yongary apparently takes place in some kind of alternate reality, where government-funded scientists have nothing better to do than sit around all day inventing itching rays. Where young children are routinely enlisted to act as advisors to heads of state in times of crisis. Where South Korea’s role on the world stage has expanded to the extent that it sends up space-based reconnaissance missions to keep tabs on nuclear weapons research in the Middle East. Where short-duration, manned reconnaissance missions outside the Earth’s atmosphere are a sensible way to keep track of something like that. Where South Korea has a manned space program at all! With all that to wrap your mind around in the “realistic” section of the movie, you’ll have no unsuspended disbelief to spare for a gigantic, fire-breathing, oil-eating, well nigh indestructible monster.
We’ve also got one of the least likely casts of characters on record. There’s a wedding going on, and just check out who’s involved: Ona the bride (most likely Moon Kang, of Hippy Carnage) is the daughter of South Korea’s foremost rocket scientist, while Sung the groom (Sun-Jae Lee would be my best guess) is the nation’s top space pilot and the son of the prime minister himself. Also in attendance are the parents of both central palyers; Sung’s sister, Suna (Jeong-Im Nam, from Legends and Ghost Story); and a dedicated young scientist named Ilo (The Snake Woman’s Yeong-Il Oh), who is apparently Suna’s slightly reluctant boyfriend. Missing in action is the youngest of the prime minister’s kids, the eight-year-old Icho (Kwang Ho Lee). Where has the little bastard gotten off to, you ask? Why, he’s hiding by the side of the road that the newlyweds are taking to their honeymoon, lying in ambush with an experimental itching ray he swiped from Ilo’s lab. It’s a good thing for Ona and Sung that Ilo happened to be following behind them in his car, because prolonged exposure to the ray could cause them literally to itch to death! Nevertheless, Ilo is forced to concede Icho’s point that “it was kinda funny” when he and the boy drive off and leave the couple to go their way unmolested. Even without an itching ray trained on them, however, it isn’t going to be much of a honeymoon for these two. They haven’t even made it to the marital bed yet when Sung’s boss calls him at the hotel. Seems the space agency has an urgent mission for him to perform right now. What? Are all the other astronauts on strike, or something? The occasion for this intrusion has something to do with a nuclear weapons experiment going on in the Middle East. The boss wants Sung to take his rocket up and observe the test from orbit. (Did I or did I not warn you about trying to make sense of this crap?) Along the way, there’s the usual radio malfunction, leading to the usual hypothetically tense scene in which no one at mission control is able to tell whether the man in the space capsule is alive or dead. Far more important is what appears to be a side-effect of the nuclear blast— a strange earthquake with a moving epicenter, headed away from the site of the explosion on a path that will take it straight into Korea if it doesn’t peter out on its own.
Look— we all know it’s a monster, right? We’re watching a monster movie, after all, and we’ve just seen both an H-bomb test and an earthquake. The last time those two things occurred in conjunction, the result was the hinterland of the Salton Sea being infested with 1000-pound vampire snails. This time, we have the more usual 100-plus-foot, fire-breathing reptile on our hands. The prime minister, taking his cue from one of those old folk legends people in cheap kaiju eiga are always going on about, names the creature “Yongary.” (It rhymes with “dungaree.”) True to form, Yongary digs its way out of the ground after reaching Korean soil, and starts breaking stuff. Cue the usual panicked, fleeing extras and sweaty gatherings of scientists and generals.
And cue also the Annoying Little Kid making a pest of himself in an effort to get the closest possible look at the monster. Icho breaks away from his family and heads straight to ground zero, where he is treated to the spectacle of Yongary drinking the oil right out of a refinery’s bunkers. He’s also on hand when the monster kicks its way into a tank full of something other than oil— some powdery white stuff that makes it itch like crazy. Congratulations to those of you who have figured out that Icho has fortuitously discovered Yongary’s weakness. Consulting with Ilo after being reunited with his kin, Icho leads the scientist to conclude that the white powder was some sort of precipitate of ammonia, and Ilo swiftly gets to work isolating precisely the right one. Meanwhile, the general who has the prime minister’s ear gets the go-ahead to launch an attack on the monster with surface-to-surface missiles. Perhaps these really do incapacitate Yongary, but it looks to me more like it just got tired from a long day of city-smashing, and decided to take a nap.
Enter Icho once again. Purloining Ilo’s itching ray a second time, Icho sneaks over to where the monster is sleeping, and directs the ray at its face. Unsurprisingly, this has the effect of waking the immense lizard up; what is somewhat surprising is the fact that the wriggling of its body induced by the itching ray convinces Icho that Yongary is dancing, and the soundtrack helpfully serves up some tepid, lounged-out surf-rock to complete the illusion. (You’re trying to make sense of it again, aren’t you? For the last time, don’t fuckin’ do that!) With the rampage about to begin anew, the prime minister sees no choice but to listen to his obnoxious brat of a son, and let Ilo have at the monster with his ammonia powder. This leads to a scene that comes even more directly out of left field than the “dancing” incident. Yongary, Monster from the Deep suddenly turns sober and sort of disturbing, as the creature’s itchy death throes drag out to absolutely sadistic lengths, climaxing with it collapsing into a river which turns red and turbid as Yongary hemorrhages to death from its anus!
It doesn’t take a genius to see that Gamera was the primary inspiration behind Yongary, Monster from the Deep. The influence shows up most obviously in the generally juvenile character of the proceedings, but there are plenty of specific plot points cribbed from Daiei’s flagship monster as well. Like Gamera, Yongary eats oil and breathes fire. There’s a scene of teenagers partying with apocalyptic abandon while the monster bears down on their town, just like in the original Gamera. Icho, like Kenny, occasionally pipes up in Yongary’s defense— although he never goes so far in that direction as to follow all the adults around, declaring with neurotic stridency that “Yongary’s a good fire-breathing hell-monster! He’s good and gentle!” The biggest point of similarity, however, is the way in which the children in the audience are encouraged, through the behavior of Icho, to view the monster with a kind of fondness even despite its status as a destructive menace. This comes across as even more twisted in Yongary than it had in Gamera, if for no other reason than the monster’s protracted and lovingly detailed demise. I mean, rectal hemorrhaging, for Christ’s sake!!!! What kid wants to fall in love with a monster, only to see it bleed to death out its ass in the final reel?! Or is this some kind of Korean thing that a Westerner like me just wouldn’t understand?