In 1527, King Jung Jong of Joseon shifted the capital city of the country – and the official chronicle of the era claims this was because of monster attacks, though the plague may have had quite a lot to do with it. This South Korean historical mystery/kaiju rampage crossbreed from writer-director Huh Jong-ho follows The Brotherhood of the Wolf in mixing speculative history with court intrigue, monster-hunting procedural, martial arts action and editorial content that turns out to have surprising contemporary relevance. As the death toll rises among his subjects, the King (Park Hee-soon) authorises Prime Minister Sim Woon (Lee Kyeong-yeong) to bring loyal warrior Yoon Gyeom (Kim Myung-min) back from the exile he incurred by complaining about the ruthless tactics – murdering villagers, basically – the elite used to quell a previous outbreak of plague. With sidekick brother Sung Han (Kim In-kwon) and adopted daughter Myung (Hyeri Lee), whom he rescued from a massacre pit, Yoon Gyeom sets out to track the cryptid, not exactly helped by the Prime Minister’s haughty, ruthless enforcer Jin Yong (Park Sung-woon), who is pursuing his own agenda in the monster hunt.
It’s no longer possible for a film to get away with promising a kaiju and delivering a sunken bit of building machinery (that was Frog Dreaming) or a hoax (as in, say, Shriek of the Mutilated), so it’s a given that whatever historians might speculate, this was going to deliver an actual beastie. However, the first half of the film proceeds sceptically, with characters convinced that the creature is a myth put about for political ends, and there’s a terrific swashbuckler act of betrayal where that conspiracy angle leads to a great deal of carnage and wrongs are done which require a revenge rampage to put right. Only then, as the baddies are congratulating themselves with pulling off the Scooby-Doo fake monster trick, does the real creature appear and the film switches into full-on monstrum action … with a bareling, hairy, fanged lion-dog-gorilla-wolf-motherfucker menace whose ancestral DNA seems to include the armoured lion of Brotherhood of the Wolf, the giant tadpole of The Host, King Seesar from Godzilla vs Mecha-Godzilla, Harryhausen’s saber-tooth from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the CGI mutant of The Relic and many other movie chimerae, but seems to be a very weird puppy grown seriously wrong after eating plague-ridden corpses.
Besides charging through hordes of soldiers, the monster spreads a plague of boils and externalises the hero’s need for revenge (its face looks rather like Forbidden Planet’s creature from the Id too). The cast are sterling in admittedly standard roles – everyone gets to adopt one personality trait apiece and the underlying conventions are what you’d expect from a 1940s Hollywood Arabian Nights film or one of those 1950s cheap epics like Black Shield of Falworth … the Prime Minister is a scheming would-be usurper like any number of Grand Viziers or disloyal knights, for instance, and the feisty archer heroine is courted by a naïve but brave young traditionalist warrior (Choi Woo-sik) who is every bit as wet as a young Robert Wagner or Tony Curtis. There’s a biting anger about the way the aristos literally trample peasants, with some moments the filmmakers couldn’t have known would feel up to the moment as a plague is used as an excuse for state repression but also handled ineptly so that the poorest folk suffer the worst from it. But there’s also a ton of sweet monster action, with the impressively snarling creature – who is nevertheless not entirely uncuddly – doing a spectacular amount of damage.