Oppenheimer sucked, but it’s been impressive to see a summer blockbuster reignite the suppressed anxieties of the Cold War for a whole new generation. Real-life hydrogen bomb tests conducted by Americans in the Pacific incited the cautionary tale that became Godzilla, but a mushroom cloud is just a macguffin in Yonggary, Monster of the Deep (1967), wherein nuclear tests in the Middle East trigger worldwide shocks that, in turn, awaken an ancient and intractable beast who attacks the Hwanghae Province of what is known today as North Korea.
The hero of Yonggary is not its namesake nor the intrepid fighter pilots who place him in their crosshairs, but rather a boy named Icho (Kwang Ho Lee) who disobeys his older sister in order to follow the beast—effectively a Godzilla/Gorgo-style dinosaur mutant, but with a regal horn on his snout—at his own risk. Between its child’s-eye POV and de rigueur scenes of grown-ups coming to grips with their options in sweaty situation rooms, Yonggary is surprisingly nihilistic: when Icho uses a flashlight to provoke the beast into dancing, the film uses the same rock-’n-roll soundtrack heard in earlier scenes of young people at the club embracing alcohol and despair in the face of his attack. It’s as if the monster himself is near ready to call it a day.
For a long time I thought the Godzilla franchise’s drift from mournful sobriety (epitomized in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 classic) toward flaccid, candy-colored camp was inevitable, but Yonggary manages to have it both ways. Icho grows to love Yonggary despite the havoc and destruction he brings wherever he goes, but it can’t last. It all leads up to a breathtaking moment of innocence lost in the film’s coda, made all the more bittersweet by the fact this eight-year-old effectively spent the preceding 79 minutes showing the scientists and military men how to do their jobs.
Directed by Kim Ki-duk (not to be confused with the deceased filmmaker behind 3-Iron), this Korean-Japanese coproduction was, no surprise, greenlit by Toei Studios in a direct bid to compete for Godzilla’s audiences; what’s funny is that Yonggary plays better than the Godzilla sequels that were being churned out by Toho at the same time. More than most films starring men trapped inside rubber monster suits, Yonggary is a revenant with telltale scars: after the Korean producers shipped the original negatives to Japan they were declared lost forever, and so the definitive (or, if you like, last-surviving) version of the film is the crude English dub. Unless a miracle happens, those bastardizing circumstances consecrate Yonggary as a masterpiece of pop art; the rare opportunity to see it on a 35mm print with a human audience shouldn’t be taken for granted.
The Great Monster Yonggary screens this afternoon, September 9, and on September 16, at Film at Lincoln Center on 35mm.