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Yongary, Monster from the Deep

Kino // PG // January 5, 2016
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 14, 2015 | E-mail the Author
noun: Yongary
  1. A Korean term loosely translating to "yeah, it's pretty much Gamera"
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I know, I know: you see a Tyrannosaurus-inspired beast with spiky fins on his back, the creature is stomping his way through a sprawling Eastern metropolis, and your kneejerk reaction is naturally going to be "Godzilla!" Believe it or not, though, Yongary, Monster from the Deep actually draws more deeply from the Gamera franchise. The colossal monster in this South Korean production also has tusks, breathes fire, feeds on oil and gasoline, and is a friend to all children. ...or, well, one child, anyway. Kind of. Heck, Yongary's producers even drafted the Gamera effects team to construct the creature suit. It's just that I've watched Gamera. I knew Gamera. Gamera was a friend of mine. Yongary, you're no Gamera.

The premise is about as Kaiju Paint by Numbers as it gets, although seeing as how Japanese media was still banned throughout the nation in 1967, it may have seemed inventive enough to South Korean audiences at the time. A barrage of bombs awakens an ancient creature, he levels city after city in his search for sustenance, the combined might of the nation's military and scientific minds prove unable to fend off the beast, and it's all up a plucky little eight year old boy in entirely-too-short shorts to save the day. There are some other beats to its plot -- a roving earthquake making a beeline towards what is presumably Seoul, a newly-married astronaut whose honeymoon is cut short by the looming threat of Yongary, missile tests in the Middle East -- but it's basically a retread of the first Godzilla and Gamera films.

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The frustrating thing about Yongary is that it sounds like it oughtta be off-the-wall. A super-itching ray gun factors heavily into the plot. Yongary "dances" with that mischievous scamp Icho to some Korean surf-rock number. At certain angles, you can see the nozzle in the creature's mouth when he's spewing fire. Yongary is incredibly ambitious with its limited budget, and the seams can show: quite literally so in the faux-night sky where crease marks or whatever are clearly visible. The beast's denouement is in a league all its own, and I wish I could say more without delving too far into spoiler territory. ...and, of course, if you're aching to see a guy in a rubber monster suit trash an entire city, Yongary repeatedly delivers.

At the same time, the film never really lands on a definitive tone. It's not consistently ridiculous enough to charm in the way that, say, Gamera vs. Guiron would a couple years after this, but none of its scares ever really land either for Yongary to succeed as a horror film. What's left is surprisingly uninvolving, especially given Yongary's glacial pace...and that sluggishness can be said about both the movie and the creature itself. There isn't a hint of a monster until 25 minutes in -- the threat just manifests itself in the form of earthquakes prior to that -- and Yongary isn't fully unveiled until the half hour mark. Despite its very lean 80 minute runtime, Yongary is so threadbare with story that it plods along and repeats itself endlessly to pad out the runtime. Take this explanation from a soldier on guard duty, for instance: "They're going to hit Yongary any minute. They'll be using guided missiles. You'd better go. ::lengthy pause:: They're going to hit Yongary any minute. ::the soldier literally stops to look at his watch:: They'll be using guided missiles. You'd better go." Anything that happens, you'll probably wind up seeing or hearing it at least twice. Ugh, and even when Yongary's over, it still finds a way to keep droning along. It doesn't help matters that Icho is such a grating lead, even by Kenny standards. Making the kid more insufferable still, Icho takes it upon himself to revive Yongary when the creature has basically been defeated. Why? No idea. Equally inexplicably, Yongary gains the ability to blast lasers from his horn afterwards. Why is this brat celebrated as a hero when it's all said and done since he's responsible for the deaths of how many of his countrymen?

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The story behind Yongary is a fascinating one: the significance of South Korea puffing out its chest in the film, the state of the Korean film industry at the time, and particularly the sociopolitical climate in which it was produced. I'm glad I watched it if only to provide some context for the remarkable audio commentary that Kino Lorber put together for this Blu-ray release. Taken purely on its own, though, Yongary, Monster from the Deep is a slog to wade through and difficult to recommend as a purchase sight-unseen. Recommended as a nostalgic blast for those who grew up watching Yongary on UHF creature features, although the uninitiated will probably want to rent, borrow, or stream it first.

Yongary, Monster from the Deep was brought over to these shores by American International Television, and as I'd hope you could guess by their name, a theatrical release was never in the cards. Although American International never intended anything more for Yongary than severely cropped television broadcasts, it turns out that they had in their possession an achingly gorgeous widescreen interpositive. That IP was the source for MGM's 2007 DVD double feature -- the first time Yongary had ever been seen in its original scope framing in the United States -- as well as this high definition release by Kino Lorber.

Kaiju films from the '60s have too often been a monstrous disappointment in high-def, from the interlaced, absurdly overcompressed Gamera releases to the soft, washed-out masters that Toho forces on their Godzilla licensees. I don't have the nearly decade-old DVD handy to do a direct comparison, but I'm thrilled to say that Yongary looks terrific on Blu-ray. The image admittedly hasn't been scrubbed clean, peppered with flecks of dust and assorted minor wear, but it's not the least bit distracting. Its filmic texture hasn't been digitally smeared away either, rendered nicely enough here even with the disc's fairly lean bitrate. Its colors are generally striking, with only a few scattered sequences looking somewhat drab, and the levels of definition and detail on display here are more than respectable. I'm also a sucker for that anamorphic distortion whenever the camera pans left or right. Very nicely done all around.

No feature-length version of Yongary, Monster from the Deep exists in its original Korean; the lengthier, original cut has long since been lost, with less than an hour of badly-damaged footage recovered over these many years. When Yongary is screened in South Korea, it's generally been this English language dub, presented here in lossless, 16-bit, two-channel mono. For a mix that tends to reflect American International's small screen intentions, Yongary hits all the marks I'd hoped it would. Sure, the score is thin and dated, and none of the sound effects pack anything resembling a wallop, even when the titular creature is leveling cities and being bombarded by air strikes. That's to be expected for a movie meant to growl from puny speakers on 13" TVs half a century ago. Some sound effects don't quite sync up with the havoc wrought on screen, including Yongary's roars that bellow a second or two before he opens his mouth. The English dialogue sounds phenomenal, though, and it's very much the focal point of this mix. Every last line is wonderfully clean, clear, and distinct. Not what I'd call reference quality, no, but this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack still delivers.

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Commentary aside, there are no other audio options.

  • Audio Commentary: Kaiju historian Steve Ryfle is occasionally joined via Skype by Korean writer/critic Kim Song-Ho for this extraordinary commentary track. Ryfle and Kim take care to place Yongary in a proper historical and sociopolitical context, to the point where this serves as a remarkable primer into the history of Korean cinema and even Korea as a whole throughout the twentieth century. It's a story equal parts fascinating and tragic, such as the fledgling industry being snuffed out during Japanese colonialism. It's also discussed how it's no coincidence that Yongary first surfaces in Pyongyang, and the film portrays South Korea as it wanted to be perceived in 1967: as a self-sufficient, resourceful, and immensely powerful nation. Ryfle also breaks down Yongary's lean budget -- the equivalent of $117,000 in U.S. dollars at the time -- and the then-rare cooperation with Japanese filmmakers in realizing a project this ambitious. Though the complete Korean film has long since been lost, Kim has had the opportunity to read the original screenplay and contrasts that with the English language cut. Enthralling, informative, and still very much entertaining, Ryfle and Kim's commentary ranks among the very best I've had the pleasure of hearing in quite a long while, making for an absolutely essential listen.

  • Trailers (4 min.): Also included are a trailer for The Monster that Challenged the World as well as Joe Dante's Trailers from Hell commentary for The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues.

The Final Word
For those who grew up watching Yongary, Monster from the Deep with wide eyes somewhere on the UHF dial, this Blu-ray release ought to be an absolute revelation, restoring the film to its largely unseen widescreen glory and -- at least as far as its high-def presentation goes -- outclassing most every other giant monster import of its era. If the battle were Gojira tai Yongary or even Gamera tai Yongary, though, it's no contest. This Korean stab at kaiju is sluggishly paced, its colossal beast doesn't spark the sort of awe and wonder that Godzilla and Gamera have at their best, and it's neither intense enough nor silly enough to be especially memorable. Recommended for those who know what they're getting into, but newcomers may want to rent or stream this one first.
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