Film reviews

Monstrum – Review

Monstrum. It’s not a great title, all things considered, but it is a surprisingly good movie. Released in 2018 with a very limited release on this side of the world it’s now being brought to us by the folks at Shudder. My last experience with Korean horror was the disappointing 0.0 Mhz so I went into this with somewhat more guarded expectations. But it turns out that Monstrum is a damn good monster movie. Mostly. But we’ll get into the details later.

The film is set in 1527, during the reign of King Jung Jong (played by Hee-soon Park) and he has a problem. Not only is the country recovering from a particularly nasty plague, but now it seems there’s some monster running around in the countryside terrorising the peasants, which has lead to food shortages in the capital because nobody wants to go looking for food when there’s a chance you could be torn into itty bitty bits. Which is fair enough, really.

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The King’s other problem is that his Prime Minster is out to get him and his ruling council seem fairly set on undermining him. Running out of options and unable to trust anyone around him, he reaches out to his disgraced former General Yoon Gyeom (Myung-Min Kim) who is living as a hunter with his brother Sung Han (In-kwon Kim) and adopted daughter Myung (Hyeri Lee). Reluctantly agreeing to get involved, the trio head off for the capital to begin their investigation and soon become mired in the political intrigue that swirls through the capital as they try to answer one simple question – Is Monstrum real?

Let’s talk about what this movie does right. The acting is great fun, the script is engaging, with some lovely black humour sprinkled throughout, and the run time of nearly two hours flies by surprisingly quickly. The film brings to mind other movies such as Brotherhood of the Wolf and Outlander. There are not nearly enough period monster movies if you ask me and it’s good to see another that isn’t just an adaptation of the Beowulf story.

The Prime Minister ended up being my favourite character in the entire film. He’s gloriously devious and underhanded, but unlike so many other scheming villains he doesn’t just leave things to his henchmen, he’s not afraid to knuckle up and get hands on when the situation calls for it. Intelligent, charismatic, confident, he’s one of those rare things – a competent bad guy.

The film also makes heavy use of practical gore effects which always get a thumbs up from me. The disease effects are particularly nasty and fleshy to the point of being just a tad uncomfortable in some scenes, so hats off to their makeup team, they did a superb job. The same can’t be said for the CGI which is… eh, it’s serviceable. Some of the close up shots are really nicely done but you never once forget that you’re watching something that doesn’t exist, though they do good work with the budget they have.

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The biggest disappointment here is the action scenes. The fight choreography might be great, it looks that way with what little you can see with an interesting fighting style which makes heavy use of feints, slides and tumbles but it’s IMPOSSIBLE TO SEE. The camera operator appears to be having a fit or his trousers are infested with bullet ants because the camera dances and shudders about all over the place as well as being in so close to the action that sometimes you can’t even see the entire actor in shot! Such a huge disappointment, especially when the General is supposed to be this supreme badass martial artist. You can’t build him up like that and then deprive us of the opportunity to clearly see him demonstrate it, movie.

The story is also fairly predictable. The Prime Minister is a little too obvious in his moustache-twirling evilness right from the get go, there’s a romance subplot that frankly adds nothing to the story and it ticks a lot of the cliche boxes for a story of this type. But in the grand scheme, that doesn’t matter. The actors give it their all, the set-pieces (crappy camerawork aside) are all genuinely impressive, the set design and costume work is gorgeous and there’s some honestly beautiful visuals to be found here.

Monster movie fans should watch this. Asian movie fans should watch this. It’s a great time. Congrats, Shudder. You done good bringing this one to the attention of Western audiences. More like this and fewer like 0.0 Mhz, yeah?

Monstrum premieres on Shudder on 14th May.

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