In Japan’s classic kaiju movies, the fault usually lies not with the monster but with humanity. The kaiju itself is neither good nor bad but simply what it is and its rampage is often a response to humanity’s mistreatment of the natural world or irresponsible scientific endeavour. In Korean monster movie Space Monster Wangmagwi (우주괴인 왕마귀, Ujugoein Wangmagwi), however, the threat is more concretely extra-terrestrial though the monster may be equally blameless apparently tortured and manipulated by an evil imperialist power hellbent on the colonisation of the Earth.
Shiny-suited aliens in impractical helmets are already on their way where they plan to disguise their invasion with the help of a passing typhoon. Their grand plan is to drop their space monster, Wangmagwi, onto the planet’s surface and let him run rampage until humanity has been subdued and they can claim the Earth. What they didn’t count on, however, is humanity’s spirited resistance led by brave Korean armed forces members and for some reason a plucky little boy with a pocket knife who manages to climb inside Wangmagwi and weaken him by taking out his vital organs.
Wangmagwi’s extraterrestrial origins may hint at a fear of invasion most obviously from the North along with Cold War paranoia rather than an attempt to reckon with past transgressions or fear of new technology. The alien invaders are eventually forced to abandon their mission and turn back having experienced unanticipated human resistance vindicating the nation’s ability to defend itself even as the armed forces consider quite radical action such as the possibility of using nuclear weapons which the aliens from the planet Gamma admit would be disadvantageous seeing as they then wouldn’t be able to live on the planet either.
Even so, the tone of the film is at least close to parody with the local population flailing about in panic trying to figure out what the best course of action might be. There is a particular irony in the captain of the spaceship’s explanation that the invasion has been 10 years in the planning so they can’t let it go wrong, while bride-to-be Ahn Hee feels something similar because she’s been planning her wedding all her life so this whole alien invasion thing is very inconvenient for her. Despite the warnings, Hee and her mother head to the wedding hall anyway with her in her full wedding dress waiting for airman fiancée Oh (Namkoong Won) to arrive though all military personnel have already been ordered back to base. Obviously, having her wedding cancelled at such short notice is distressing, but given there’s a rampaging kaiju on the loose Hee’s hysterics seem both childish and irresponsible though she later pays for them in being kidnapped by Wangmagwi and carried around just like Fay Wray in King Kong.
Meanwhile, the film throws in a lengthy comic relief sequence revolving around two middle-aged men who set up a bet to see who is the most cowardly leveraging their life savings, homes, and even a wife who later throws herself on the other man’s mercy hoping he’ll help her escape the kaiju because her own husband is too useless to be relied upon. Conversely, the military aren’t finding this funny at all instantly springing into action risking their lives to stop Wagmagwi’s rampage through the capital city which after all has only recently been rebuilt. The little boy meanwhile, seemingly an orphaned street kid, complains that grownups are all cowards incapable of facing Wangmagwi and so he’ll have to do it himself.
The film ends on a note of familial reconciliation in which Hee and Oh pledge to adopt the boy suggesting that the threat has been overcome and normality has now returned while the Gamma simply sacrifice Wangmagwi in deciding to cut their losses and return home. Despite the comic overtones, the praise of the armed forces is sincere leaning into an authoritarian message that the military is necessary for protection of the nation while subtly undercutting it by suggesting that it’s a fearless boy who is responsible for Wangmagwi’s downfall though in reality it’s the Gamma who eventually turn on him, ordering his “termination” through a “self-destruct” mechanism. Featuring some impressive model work, Space Monster Wangmagwi never takes itself too seriously, packing in portentous storm noises alongside its tokusatsu-inspired effects, but does perhaps have something to say about the anxieties of the Korean society in the late 1960s.
Space Monster Wangmagwi screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.