Mulgoe [Monstrum] (2018)

Mulgoe combines two very different types of movies: the lavish historical epic of the sort that the Chinese film industry has been making lately, built around political machinations, a serious threat against Imperial power and a heroic figure who steps in to support the Emperor at great cost –and the monster movie.

I have to wonder if this was meant to be the Korean answer to The Great Wall, although this is a very different film, one that is far more serious and perhaps far more historical.  After all, Zhang Yimou’s film takes place in an ultra-colorful largely imaginary historical past, in a time which we know little or nothing about.

Convenient, right?

Mulgoe starts with a claim that it is based on an actual historical incident, although as I understand, the records merely not that the King temporarily abandoned his palace because something “bizarre” happened.

Which makes everything that follows rather a leap.

But you never know, it might have happened this way.

Mulgoe is set early in the reign of King Jungjong of Joseon, a turbulent period when Jungjong overthrew his tyrant brother and then found himself unable to act on his own, thanks to the power of those who helped put him on the throne.

His subjects are uneasy, thanks to the rumors that something lurks in the mountains not far from the capital, some monstrous thing that is killing people in terrible ways.  The King suspects that this is a plot by his Prime Minister to seize power, and sends a disgraced former general to investigate.

Unfortunately, there is more than one monster at work, and both stories may be true…

I’ll confess that I enjoy these sorts of historical epics with their plots and secrets and competing groups — but even more, I enjoy the ones, like Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee series, which have mixed in more fantastic elements.  One of things I like about Mulgoe is the degree of seriousness with which it all plays out, where the political struggles end up causing terrible harm to the innocent.

The creature itself, when we finally meet it, isn’t at all what we expected.  Its origins prove to be quite different from our assumptions and guesses — and surprisingly Science Fictional for a film set in the Sixteenth Century.

I have to confess that the ending does seem just a tad disappointing as it goes a little too far in saving one of the main characters — although I’ll concede that the Rube Goldbergian gimmick responsible does have the sort of wild improbability of some of Tsui Hark’s big action setpieces.  In the end it really doesn’t spoil an interesting and well-made film.

It just could have used a harder edge, that’s all.

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