Two Generations of Digital Monstrosity

So, how’s that thing where you watch movies of quality again going?

Just fine, thanks.

What have you watched so far?

Er, a couple of Asian monster movies.

That doesn’t sound like we’re talking about the same thing.

Go away, I explain.

Monstrum was a fair box office hit in Korea last year, but dropped behind Searching in its second week of release and never recovered the lead. We’re in that very popular period of Korean history for their genre flicks, the Joseon era, 1527, in this case. King Jung Jong is having a difficult time; his court, led by an ambitious Prime Minister, is actively opposing him, and using a supposed rampage by a monster to make him appear weak and ineffectual. The king tracks down one of his old captains – Yoon Gyeom – who had gone into self-imposed exile years before. He had been present at a massacre of an entire village to contain an epidemic, found one survivor – a baby girl – with no trace of disease, and after excoriating the court for their extreme response, left to raise the girl, along with his faithful lieutenant. Knowing him to be a righteous man, Jung Jong asks him to take his rank back up to investigate the monster situation.

Well, something is killing lots of people in a bloody manner, and there seems to be a resurgence in the disease that led to the massacre years before. Yoon, however, is skeptical; too many of the bodily remains of the supposed monster slaughter bear odd marks that look like rope burns. And, of course, the political maneuvering continues, muddying the waters further.

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Okay SPOILER alert here, though it’s pretty much spoiled by the trailer below, anyway: yes, the whole monster thing is a plot by the wicked Prime Minister to overthrow the government and take over. But, goshdarn it, there actually is a Monster, it’s the source of that disease, and the Prime Minister’s machinations serve to not make it royally pissed off, but also manage to bring it right into the Imperial Palace. There is a fair amount of mayhem ensuing.

I’m trying to be fairly circumspect here, because Monstrum is an enjoyable movie and I want you to experience it yourself. What I feared was going to be a rehash of Brotherhood of the Wolf turned out to be a bit more nuanced, and more brutal in execution. I really need to apologize to the actors and filmmakers here, because my aged Western brain is not having much success with parsing the Korean names – which after years of watching Chinese and Japanese movies just feels like a complete personal failure. This is because I want to praise what becomes the core of our good guys; Yoon (Kim Myung-Min) is easy, but I can’t easily pin down his lieutenant (Kim Im-Kwon), the grown girl Yoon rescued (who has become a expert archer and medicine woman)(Lee Hye-Ri), and the young courtier who falls in love with her (Choi Woo-Shik). (Thank God for that trailer! It helped me maintain a small degree of journalistic integrity) The chemistry between these actors is quite good, and though you sense that this story is pretty much a one-off experience, you’d like to see more of them by the movie’s end.

For reasons that will soon be apparent, I followed this up with Moon Over Tao, with which I have a fairly shameful and stupid relationship. This came out on domestic VHS in the late 90s, and I dutifully bought it, and then never watched it. So this was the perfect time, I thought, and now I have to write about it without getting it confused with Monstrum.

Getting old sucks.

Let’s start the confusion early: Suikyou (Toshiyuki Nagashima) returns to his old lord years after leaving his service to become a monk. He returns because he dreamed of an old comrade in trouble. This comrade, we find, was investigating the source of a marvelous sword taken from a captured bandit, and has not returned. To demonstrate, the samurai Hayate (Hiroshi Abe) uses the sword to cut through a sizable rock as if it were paper. Suikyou leaves to find his comrade, but the Lord insists Hayate tag along. Along the way they meet Reika (Reila Aphrodite), a young orphan girl and beekeeper. Then things get complicated.

Reika witnesses the arrival of, and a fight between, three alien women (all played by Yûko Moriyama), who are seeking a biological weapon they call the Makaraga. One of the women throws herself between her two comrades as they fight, and gets mortally wounded for her trouble. While the fight rages on across the countryside, Reika tends to the dying woman, who explains to her the plot and gives her the Tao, a tuning fork-like device that can “seal the Makaraga”.

BOOGA BOOGA!

In the interest of moving things along (and the plot is fairly complex): Suikyou is certain his old acquaintance Kakugyo (Gene Ballard), a monk gone evil, is the source of all problems. Indeed, Kakugyo is the leader of the bandits; he found a meteorite and stripped away its metal exterior to make the invincible swords his men wield, and in the center, a strange globe from which his mystic senses receive what seem to be fragmented memories: it is, of course, the Makaraga, which the alien womens’ race found so terrible they sealed it in metal and buried it on a desolate moon centuries before. Then, doggoneit, the moon blew up and the Makaraga fell to Earth. One of the surviving women wants to use it to foment revolution on their home planet; the other wants to keep it sealed away forever. Movie plots being what they are, Kakugyo is going to stumble upon the way to revive the Makaraga during what should have been the final battle, and that turns out to be a bad thing, as the beastie is not only immortal, it is eternally hungry.

While Moon Over Tao lacks the political intrigue of Monstrum (though there is a bit – Suikyou is there to kill Kakugyo, and is shocked when Hayate tries to negotiate with him for the sale of the swords to his master), it’s a lot more fun. Well, maybe it’s more fun because of that. I’m surprised there aren’t more examples of Japanese sci-fi mixed with chambara – the only other instance I can think of offhand is Orochi the 8-Headed Dragon – but it’s the internet, I’m sure I’ll be reminded of more. Suikyou is a remarkable character – he carries with him a period clipboard so he can paint one-off magic scrolls on the spot, and his battle staff conceals an enormous paintbrush for the same purpose. The magic fights between Suikyou and Kakugyo are creative and kinetic. And the screenplay is full of little bits that become quite significant later, something I always appreciate.

But we’re here to talk about monsters, aren’t we? We love monsters!

Monstrum‘s beastie is almost totally CGI, as you expect for a 2018 flick – I think I spotted a few shots with CGI-sweetened animatronics, but I could also be wrong. It’s actually a pretty good monster, if still a bit hyper-real – that hair is just a little too distinct. It looks like an enormous monkey dog fed on steroids and evil intent, and it has a disturbing bit of humanity about the face, allowing it to show some emotion, while skeeving us out.

Oooooooh dear

The Makaraga is a mix of animatronics and, sadly, 1997 CGI. It’s actually pretty good CGI for 1997, but it evidences a major problem in that era – trying to make the CGI creation look like it has weight. The Makaraga walks and glides too easily in its environments, and the difference between the animation and the real-world constructions that people interact with is all too obvious. The design does feel genuinely alien, though, so high marks for that.

Monstrum and Moon Over Tao feel largely cut from the same cloth, but are different enough to forge their own identities. Monstrum for straight adventure, Moon Over Tao for popcorn pulp. Just don’t watch them practically back to back, as I did, or they will start blending into each other, and you’ll start feeling like a senile fool when you talk about them.