Yongary, Monster of the Deep (1967) is South Korea's entry into the daikaiju (large strange beast) subgenre during the time when Japan was experiencing great success with Showa period Godzilla movies. Yongary more closely resembles the later, family-friendly Godzilla than it does the original, terrifyingly-dark Godzilla. In fact, the hero of the story is a young boy and many of the movie's scenes could be considered juvenile.
The beginning of the movie takes a long time getting to the giant monster. I'm not sure why an astronaut is launched into space when South Korean authorities learn that there's nuclear testing being done in the Middle East. I thought it was so they could observe what's happening. However, it's someone on the ground during the resulting earthquake that first snaps a picture of the creature making its way along the fault line.
With "the epicenter moving toward the heart of Korea," and a phenomenon that "defies every natural law man knows," a state of emergency and martial law is declared. With only childhood fables confirming Yongary's existence, it's reported to the public in a matter of fact way. Cue scenes of people running in the streets, one that includes a man carrying a cross and shouting, “All you sinners repent."
Yongary looks an awful lot like Godzilla except he has a horn on his nose, two long teeth extending upward from his bottom jaw, and two little “fins” on the end of his tail. On the scary side, he breathes fire from a perfectly round opening at the back of his throat and can somehow invisibly slice jeeps or airplanes cleanly in two. On the silly side, he drinks oil out of barrels, then gets itchy and moves around in circles as he tries to scratch himself.
The first time Yongary scratches and spins, it’s not necessarily funny. But the second time, when Icho, the little boy, witnesses it, a pop song plays and Icho cries with glee, “Hey, he’s dancing! Go, Yongary, go!” This is a good example of how the tone shifts and the monster changes from an instrument of destruction to one of amusement. A balance is achieved at the moment a chemical to destroy Yongary is discovered…
Two scientists, their spouses and Icho laugh, “That’ll put him out of business… and it’s about time!” They then giggle incessantly like it’s the funniest thing in the world. The characters must have been sniffing too much of the chemical themselves because only a few minutes earlier they were deadly serious about a plan to defeat Yongary. “If this scheme can save one human life, it’s worth it.”
I’m not complaining about the uneven approaches; neither one brings the other down. However, I’m not sure the Godzilla stories had such drastic mood swings inside the same movie. I was actually quite impressed with the production values. Sure, Yongary appears as a more cartoonish version of Godzilla, but the matte paintings, miniatures and special effects are as good as, sometimes even better, than the gold standard that they’re imitating.
Written by Ki-duk Kim, Run-sung Set
Directed by Ki-duk Kim
Starring Yeong-il Oh, Jeong-im Nam, Sun-jae Lee, Moon Kang, Kwang Ho Lee
Released August 13, 1967 (South Korea)
RT 80 min.
Home Video Kino Lorber (Blu-ray)