Shudder brings us a gory, goofy mix of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tremors.
With Parasite taking home Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, it’s never been a better time to sample the rich, vibrant tapestry of Korean cinema. You’ve got your Chan-wook Parks, your Lee Chang-dongs, the rest of Bong Joon-ho’s rich filmography to choose from — all richly-layered dramas of beautiful subtext and incredible command of tone. But sometimes you just want to watch some goofy monster schlock filled with a high body count and more wisecracks than you can shake a sword at.
Luckily, horror streaming service Shudder and director Heo Jong-ho have you covered with Monstrum (Korean title: Mulgoe), a sumptuous period actioner that scratches a very specific itch: what if a sumptuous East Asian medieval epic also included a pus-covered lion bear?
“Based on a true story” in the loosest possible sense (extrapolating from a snippet of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), Monstrum transports us to 16th-century Korea, when King Jungjong (Park Hee-soon) rules with a benevolent hand. However, Joseon is still reeling from a deadly plague that beset the land a decade prior, and rumors begin to fly about a mysterious creature roaming Mount Inwangsan and sending the public into a panic.
To solve the mystery about whether this “Monstrum” is real (and to stave off a potential coup from the Prime Minister (Lee Geung-young)), Jungjong calls his retired general Yun-kyum (Kim Myung-min) from a pastoral life in the woods to lead an investigation. Aided by his bumbling brother Sung-han (Kim In-kwon), his adopted daughter Myung (Lee Hye-ri), and a handsome young officer of the royal court (Parasite‘s Choi Woo-shik), Yun-Kyum’s team bits off more than they can chew.
Korean media has been melding the horror and period genres for a while now, zombie properties like Kingdom and Rampant mining the rich textures of the Joseon dynasty to elevate their gloopy genre delights with some wuxia-adjacent swordsmanship. Monstrum is no different, a sumptuously-presented feudal actioner that throws a big furry beastie into the mix without breaking a sweat.
For the first hour, Monstrum feels largely like an amped-up tale of palace intrigue; attentive audiences will have to keep close attention to the various political players vying to knock off Jungjong, while Jong-ho and co-writer Heo Dam’s script heaps on loads of soapy exposition about Myung’s relationship with Yun-kyum. It’s a slow burn, to be sure, and Jong-ho works diligently to tease those viewers who might go in blind as to whether or not Monstrum is even real.
But in the meantime, we get to see our central quartet bounce nicely off each other — especially Myung-min and In-kwon as two bantering warrior brothers who feel like all three male leads from The Hidden Fortress thrown in a blender. They’re genuinely funny together, which makes their formidable skills on the battlefield doubly impressive. They even manage to make Yun-kyum and Myung’s father-daughter dynamic feel lived-in and real, with Myung proving herself more than a hanger-on in numerous occasions.
A sumptuously-presented feudal actioner that throws a big furry beastie into the mix without breaking a sweat.
But of course, on a long enough timeline, we gotta see the goods, and the actual “Monstrum” itself is a decently exciting creature for the limited CG budget they likely had. It’s a well-textured, menacing beast (based on the haetae from Korean mythology), all teeth and boils and mangy fur, but the effects are still a little wonky in motion. Jong-ho delights in speed-ramping certain hero shots, too, which makes the VFX feel even more plastic-y.
These are minor complaints, though, and the rest of the action is beautifully staged — especially one mid-film long-take showdown between Yun-kyum’s crew and the goons of rival general Jin-Yong (Park Sung-woong). When it’s in action, it’s a delight to see Monstrum tossing Korean soldiers around like ragdolls or chomping down on particularly unfortunate souls. Jong-ho stages the action, whether against man or beast, with remarkable clarity, but he’s not afraid to get down and dirty with some handheld shenanigans, which itself feels innovative for the genre.
All in all, Monstrum is a decently entertaining monster flick, with some beautiful period detail (the costumes and production design could rival the finest wuxia epics) to contrast the down-and-dirty monster fun and witty banter. If you like your ancient warriors to fight something a little scarier than armed guards, Monstrum‘s gleeful sense of adventure has you covered.
Monstrum is currently streaming on Shudder.