It’s an unstable time for Joseon, a kingdom of Korea. Between threats of plague, political unrest, and rumors of a vicious monster stalking the countryside, King Jung Jong’s reign is threatened. He sends the exiled Yoon Gyeom to investigate claims of the monster, but along the way he unlocks dark secrets and a conspiracy to dethrone the king.
Monstrum is a thrilling Korean film blending martial arts, history, and a giant monster directed by Jong-ho Huh (The Advocate: A Missing Body, Countdown). Huh co-wrote the screenplay along with first time screenwriter Heo-dam. I personally have always been a fan of Korean horror films. To date I haven’t seen one that I didn’t love, and Monstrum is no different. The plot combines multiple different genres and subgenres of film to create something beautiful. It is a period piece, showing a bit of 16th century Korean history intertwined with fiction. It is a political thriller, revealing sinister conspiracies to dethrone the king. It is a martial arts film, complete with fantastic fight choreography. Then, of course, it is a creature feature with a quite unique monster called Monstrum. Huh and Heo-dam seamlessly bring these elements together. The resulting film has a little something for everyone to enjoy.
The film builds suspense by gradually revealing information to the viewers. At first the rumors of the monster are just that, rumors. The filmmakers play with the audience by initially making it unclear if Monstrum is a real beast threatening the kingdom or if it’s a figment created by those wanting to overthrow the king. That makes the reveal of the monster even more exciting. There are many messages thrown around throughout the film, but what stands out as the prevailing theme is how those who suffer the most from coups are the common folk. Time and time again we see how the poor people in the kingdom are slaughtered, sacrificed, and left to starve or exposed to plague while those in power stay safe within their palaces. It’s a theme that stands out not only because it tells a thrilling story, but also because it is something that still happens today. In the world today, I think many of us can relate to the fear of plague and feeling as though those in power couldn’t care less whether we die or not.
Monstrum has a huge cast of characters and all of them are a delight to watch. Myung-Min Kim (Six Flying Dragons, Closer to Heaven) stars as the once exiled Yoon Gyeom. We we first meet Yoon, he’s kind of dopey and lives in the countryside with his daughter and brother. When he is called upon by the king to help the investigation into Monstrum, Myung-Min Kim completely changes the character to a respectable and formidable man, yet it still feels natural. In-kwon Kim (My Way, Tidal Wave) plays the lovable Sung Han. Living with Yoon and his daughter, Sung is definitely the goofy uncle. While he can clearly kick some butt as well, In-kwon Kim makes sure to keep that goofiness throughout the film. Hyeri Lee (Reply 1988, My Punch-Drunk Boxer) plays Yoon’s daughter, Myung. She is smart, skilled, and takes everything in stride. Lee shows how Myung’s strong will allows her to easily go from being a simple country girl to warrior fighting alongside her father. Honorable mention goes to Woo-sik Choi as royal guard member Heo, whom many will likely recognize from the Oscar-winning hit film Parasite. This motley band of heroes makes the film even more enjoyable because you have someone to really root for.
There are so many stunning visual elements that make Monstrum an artistic feat. The most obvious things viewers will notice are the fantastic costume and set design. It’s clear a lot of care was taken to not only make the costumes and sets visually appealing, but also true to the period of the film. Of course, the film also includes glorious fight choreography as well. Surprisingly, the film has some shockingly realistic and very well done practical effects. This is evident in various wounds and the physical effects of the plague. What I’m sure everyone is really wondering about is Monstrum himself. The beast is done with CGI and somehow manages to look both menacing and adorable. I may be alone on this, but I think Monstrum is cute. While the CGI itself isn’t necessarily the best, the actual creature has a stylish and distinct look. The design of the creature is stunning and feels reminiscent of the beasts one would find carved around ancient temples and palaces of Asia. There is just so much to look at, which may be discouraging for viewers who take issue with subtitled films, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
Monstrum is a gorgeous film brimming with action, beauty, suspense, and of course a giant monster. Jong-ho Huh and Heo-dam expertly put all these different elements and genres together in a way that tells a memorable story. It not only has great performances, but it also is one of the most visually appealing films I’ve seen so far this year. There is a lot for people to look at on screen while also reading subtitles so it can be difficult at times to take everything in, but don’t let that discourage you. Even if it takes multiple watches to catch all the details, it is one you won’t want to miss. Monstrum is sure to be on many “best of 2020” lists at the end of the year.
OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10