GwoemulSynopsis: A creature plunges from the Han River Bridge into the river emerging on its shores for a feeding frenzy upon onlookers. When a young girl is snatched in the melee, her family set off to recover her from the monster that the government claims to be a host of an unidentified virus.

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Gwoemul 7.5

eyelights: the humour. the unusual look of the creature.
eyesores: the cgi rendering of the creature. the creature’s beefy arms.

When I first saw the DVD for ‘Gwoemul ‘, I had simply dismissed it as “yet another monster picture”.  Or even a Kaiju film. There are tons of Kaijus out there and their quality is usually pretty dismal. Personally, I wasn’t really in the mood for another. And, quite frankly, the artwork and title didn’t really inspire me to pursue this one further.

But I kept hearing pretty good things about it. Whether it be online or in print, ‘Gwoemul ‘ was regularly referenced as a horror movie worth seeing.

So I eventually ceded and picked it up when I got the opportunity to get a cheap copy. It remained on my radar the whole time, and I was just looking for an excuse to watch it. Now, given that I’m watching some of the ‘Gojira‘ films (albeit very slowly) and the ‘Alien‘ series, as well as b-grade monster pictures, I figured that this would be the right time for it.

I must say that, for a creature feature, it’s pretty decent. But was I blown away? Not quite. And I was far less enthused about it than I was lead to believe I would be. It really didn’t meet my expectations.

What I liked the most was the beginning of ‘Gwoemul ‘, after which it sort of leveled off as a relatively enjoyable, but unmemorable motion picture. What I liked was the whole set up of the creature, and how we were introduced to it: Its origins are rooted in a military experiment wherein the researchers didn’t follow protocol, dumping chemicals in the river, after which we briefly see its development over the years, before it comes out in the open once and for all.

By then, we are also introduced to our cast of main characters (although we don’t know it at the time): a grandfather, his dim-witted son and the granddaughter. The old man’s other kids, a son and a daughter, are also in the picture, in largely supporting roles. With the appearance of the dimwit, a fair bit of humour is injected into the picture, as he acts or reacts in the most sublimely moronic ways – like saving the wrong girl when the beast goes on a rampage.

This rampage is part of the film’s initial charm: it’s partly surprising, partly goofy, partly suspenseful. At first, the creature is a mysterious form, hanging under a bridge, in the shadows. After being noticed, people amusingly start tossing things in the water to feed it, oblivious to the possible dangers. That’s when the creature comes storming out and makes quick work of the crowd, chasing some and eating others. Needless to say, things don’t go too well.

What I loved about the beast was its unusual design. It seems to have been conceived as a hybrid of many animals, both in nature and in prehistory. It retains its amphibian origins by having a huge tail and fish-like frame, but it also has two large arms in lieu of fins. Its head is also fish-like but it ends in a gaping mouth that separates into four parts – something along the lines of the sandworms in Dune. But creepier. It all makes for a very strange but interesting-looking creature.

My chief complaint are the arms. In the tradition of modern monster creatures, the creature was built extremely muscular. I can think of very few examples in the animal kingdom that have such appendages – typically, even the strongest animals don’t have puffy biceps. Of course, these days, even werewolves, beasts that should be lithe, sleek, are designed this way in the movies. The mouth is also a modern convention: the scarier and the more unusual the better. Soon, someone will make a creature with an 8-part mouth.

Still, the creature seems somewhat credible by virtue of its origins – both in design and in the film’s science fiction. What didn’t work was the rendering of the creature. While I realize that Korean films can’t possibly have the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster, I would have preferred to see a combination of puppetry and cgi work their magic to bring the creature to life, instead of relying on cgi alone. As it stands, the creature doesn’t really mesh into the real world very well. It moves fine, for the most part (a typical issue for cgi), but it doesn’t blend in.

Be that as it may, it didn’t deter from my enjoyment too much. If anything, it was just a distraction.

Still, I was left slightly cold by the film after this opening; nothing seemed to really grab hold of me or excite me. I didn’t even connect to any of the characters on any level, so I remained indifferent to their various plights; as they spent the remainder of the film searching for the little girl, I just watched on with utter indifference.

The most interesting of the lot was the dimwit, because he was amusing, but he obviously wasn’t someone I could relate to. The next most interesting was his sister, because she was an Olympic -level archer – but she had not much personality to speak of, so I wasn’t drawn to her either. Their brother, an alcoholic, had no distinguishing features other than his bent for bending the elbow. And the grandfather was a decent character, but again there’s not much to speak of.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

One character who could have been interesting is the dimwit’s daughter. while I was disappointed that she initially survived the creature’s attack (not because I’m cruel, but because it would have been emotionally devastating at the correct time, and it would have signaled that nothing was sacred in this picture), she could have been interesting from a survivor’s standpoint, as she tries to stay alive while her family seeks her out. For whatever reason, I found her uninspired and lacking the spunk I would have wanted to see in this situation.She did eventually die, however, and by then this was unexpected given how light the film was in many respects. What surprised me was how the dimwit father adopted another survivor, a young boy, after losing her. Those last few moments with the father and his “new” son were kind of sweet and a pleasing close to what was essentially a dramatic monster movie.

However, I have to wonder about the idea that the father more-or-less got to swap his daughter for a son like that. Given the context, which is that Korea is a highly-patriarchal society, there is something unsavoury about this notion. It may not have been intentional on the filmmakers’ part, of course, but it still leaves a weird impression on me.

Another weird leftover of the picture was how I felt about the creature’s fate. For some reason, I connected with the beast much more than the human characters, and saw it as a victim of circumstance: it’s not its fault that it mutated into this monster, and it was only trying to survive peacefully at first. So, when it got gassed to death I genuinely felt sorry for it. I’m not sure if I should have, but I saw it like Frankenstein’s monster – misunderstood, and doomed.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

All this to say t that I loved the mix of horror and humour in ‘Gwoemul ‘, but was left unmoved by the characters or the story. It’s a decent monster picture, though, and it’s hard to argue against it. But it simply it didn’t work for me. I know that there are plenty of people out there who think otherwise – it was, after all, lauded globally, being nominated for and having won many awards.

I think that this is one of those picture that should be seen, given a chance. ‘Gwoemul’ is a quality movie that I would easily recommend to fans of creature features and/or international cinema.

Date of viewing: January 26, 2013

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