J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Shudder: Monstrum


The King is convinced reports of a monster rampaging outside the capitol are fake news designed to undermine his reign. The cabal is real, but unfortunately the news is not as fake as the conspirators think in director-screenwriter Huh Jong-ho’s Monstrum, which premieres today on Shudder.

According to a cryptic 1527 entry in the royal court history, King Jungjong moved the capitol for three years, because of monster attacks. Supposedly, it really says that. In reality, it could have been a number of other things, but a monster makes for a better movie than a plague. Unfortunately, the good people of Joseon have to contend with that too, because some of the so-called “Monstrum’s” victims exhibit tell-tale signs of disease. Suspiciously, others don’t.

To get to the bottom of the Monstrum rumors, King Jungjong enlists the services of retired officer Yoon Gyeom, who resigned in disgust with the King’s ruthless handling of a previous plague. In subsequent years, Yoon has lived a quiet life with comedic relief brother Sung Han and Myung, who he raised as a daughter after saving her from a plague-era massacre. Reluctantly, he agrees to lead the monster hunt, but he is walking into a trap laid by the scheming prime minister, Sim Woon. However, things get a little more complicated when a certain uninvited guest crashes the party.

Monstrum is a wildly entertaining monster movie that is rife with irony for contemporary audiences keenly attuned to themes of pandemics, fake news, and “deep state” subversion. Trump and Bolsonaro fans, this could be the Korean monster movie you have been waiting for—even though both the monster and the pestilence are very real.

The monster design is not particularly original, but the digital effects look unusually realistic on the small screen. He pretty much tears apart most of the Imperial Palace and any of the Sim Woon’s Wolf Warriors who get in the way, which is definitely cool to watch. There is also plenty of high-quality martial arts and hack-and-slash action to keep viewers’ adrenaline pumped up. There are times when Huh really pushes the limits of credibility, but seriously, who cares?

Kim Myung-min is all kinds of hard-nosed as Yoon, while Kim In-kwon generally keeps the shtick dialed down as his brother. Hyeri also handles her action duties with energy and attitude as Myung—and gets most of the film’s funniest lines. Disappointingly, the great Park Sung-woong does not have enough time or space to fully exhibit his full villainous powers as Sim Woon’s military enforcer, Jin Young. However, Park Hee-soon’s portrayal of King Jungjong is more intriguingly nuanced and balanced (in keeping with current scholarly thinking) than we usually see in films about raging, infectious monsters.

Huh is certainly not stingy with the monster—and it is easy to see why. Every time he attacks, which is often, the chaos and carnage is impressive. Yet, we don’t miss him during the totally cinematic mortal melees. Very highly recommended, Monstrum starts streaming today (5/14) on Shudder.

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