[Please note that this review of Monstrum (Mulgoe) contains spoilers from the third paragraph onwards.]
In monster movies, individual and societal anxieties assume prodigiously destructive form, so that, as well as embodying and spreading panic, they can also be vanquished or at least contained and accommodated – but nonetheless, they still retain their metaphorical power, even when their more manifest force has been stopped. In his period creature feature Monstrum (Mulgoe), Huh Jong-ho understands this all too well, ambiguating (at least at first) the status of his monster between conspiratorial fiction, avatar of national fear, and real tooth-and-claw beastie.
It is 1527, and villagers from around Inwangsan (literally ‘mountain of generous king’) are being killed, whether by plague or by something that is literally tearing them limb from limb. As the Prime Minister (Lee Geung-young) embraces rumours that a terrifying monstrum is responsible, spreading disease and destruction in its wake, the sceptical King Jungjong (Park Hee-soon) smells a plot against his throne, and turns to estranged but loyal general Yun-kyum (Kim Myung-min) to investigate whether this creature really exists. Joined by his adopted daughter Myung (K-pop idol Lee Hye-ri), his devoted lieutenant/provider of comic relief Sung-han (Kim In-kwon), and the King’s dishy representative Hur (Choi Woo-shik), Yun-kyum proves as much detective as warrior, following clues that point to political subterfuge and subversion, and ultimately bringing down the brutal force that is murderously beleaguering the state.
[spoiler alert] Yet while Monstrum is brimming with Joseon-era court intrigue, and there really are plotters fabricating the existence of a monster to serve their own monstrous ends in deposing a generous king, ultimately this is a monster movie, and the creature that the King’s rivals have expediently conjured is also a living, breathing presence, as a return of the repressed – or in this case, a return of the previous king’s perverted corruption, now all grown up and ready to cause havoc. This creature is a marvel of SFX and modelling work – a mutant hybrid of the rabid boar from Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), the toothy aliens from Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block (2011), the bounding behemoth from Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006), and an oversized puppy dog peeved at being mistreated by its human masters.
Yet even as, in the end, we – along with all the characters – see this flesh-and-blood monstrum rampaging through the kingdom and indiscriminately infecting, tossing, goring or eating anyone who gets in the way, it never loses its allegorical dimension, not least because several of the human characters prove no less monstrous in their willingness to trample all over others in a callous, self-serving assault on national harmony.
The film Monstrum too is a hybrid creature, combining elements of action, adventure, horror, politics, romance and comedy in a barreling, unwieldy form that will sweep even the most fastidious of viewers along its relentless narrative trajectory to a crowd-pleasing climax. Its morality may appear black and white, but here illusions are believed, and monsters are made not born.
© Anton Bitel