Old-school Special Effects with S(e)oul

Welcome to Maser Patrol, a weblog that covers Japanese genre fiction. But, it being April Fool’s Day, imagine if we did something crazy, like punking readers by instead talking about, say, SOUTH KOREAN genre movies. Haha; that would be ridiculous.

…let’s do it.

As a lot of genre fans are aware, SRS just released 1984’s War of the God Monsters, or, as we old-timers know it, The Flying Monster, or perhaps even Flying Dragon Attacks.

What’s not mentioned in SRS’s publicity material is that the movie is noteworthy for having effects almost entirely composed of recycled Tsuburaya Productions stock footage from Ultraman, Return of Ultraman, and Fireman, plus the Taiwanese movie The Founding of Ming Dynasty (which Tsuburaya staff worked on), with rare exceptions:

The process of repurposing foreign effects footage like this should be familiar in a modern context from the likes of Power Rangers, but it was not unusual then, either. After all, Taiwan was making new things using Japanese footage from Mach Baron and Kamen Rider, and South Korea had even already done something similar with the very same The Founding of Ming Dynasty, which, while harvested for a dragon fight in War of the God Monsters, had previously been used as source material for 1977’s Prince of Dragon King (AKA 3rd Son of the Dragon King, 용왕 삼태자). That movie is often confused with the 1977 Taiwanese flick Sea Gods and Ghosts, which is understandable, since they have the same stock effects footage, same title in Chinese characters, and even the same story structure.

Thus, if you’re going off memory, it’s easy to conflate the two, but if you actually watch the two movies in succession, it’s easy to see that these are not the same cast. Best guess is that one was made aping the other, like Universal’s Spanish Dracula, and the Korean version seems farther removed from the source there.

The mix-ups can be attributed to dearth of available documentation on these movies. While Japan’s effects films are famous worldwide, most of the Korean stuff hasn’t really been played outside of Korea, and even there it hasn’t always been widely preserved (for example, the original Korean audio for Yongary is lost, so if you want to watch the whole movie, you have to check out the English dub). You see this changing around the beginning of the 21st century, which is why many film fans, especially fans of Japanese genre content, will point to titles like The Ring Virus or Oldboy as the start of the conversation for Korean genre cinema, or kaiju fans might have a frame of reference limited to international co-productions like Yongary, A*P*E, and Crocodile Fangs. However, the South Korean tradition of such tokusatsu-influenced effects films is broader than that, which is what I thought might make a good subject today.

A lot of the content that does survive has not been reissued in higher quality for another possible reason, which ties back to War of the God Monsters and Prince of Dragon King: sourced from multiple locations and multiple inspirations, certain productions seem poised to run afoul of international copyrights. This is not to mention how exploitation mockbusters (e.g. how Crocodile Fangs lifts heavily from Jaws, or A*P*E from King Kong), despite being very much the vogue of the industry for a good couple of decades, can have a temporary boost by imitating a popular hit, but suffer irrelevance once hype for the source property declines. Anime fans are all too familiar with a few of the more suspiciously-trademark-straddling South Korean productions, but for tokusatsu fandom, it might be news.

I suspect the fast-and-loose approach to intellectual property back in the day might have something to do with the reluctance of licensors to allow a home video release of the country’s debut giant monster movie, 1967’s Big Monster Wangmagwi (우주괴인 왕마귀). Even though it may have been just a cheaper cash-in on the upcoming Yongary (even getting sued by that movie’s producers) and a retread of King Kong, the film is significant for being a breakout giant monster feature for the nation, and having a record-holding count of extras. So, there’d certainly be interest, but SRS was flatly refused the option to license it. Fans were bemused, speculating that the copyright holders were perhaps holding out for more money, or that the print was in incomplete condition (which has been refuted by individuals who have attended screenings of a restored version from the Korean Film Archive), but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s possible that they simply doesn’t want to verify that there’s no unlicensed stock footage, music, or sound effects present that they’d have to clear before duplication was allowed. Or maybe they’re just afraid of getting sued by the owners of Yongary again.

I suppose that’s as good an opportunity as any to start talking about Yongary, who, aside from his infamous neighbor Pulgasari to the North, holds the title of the most iconic creature associated with the Korean peninsula. It’s worth noting that much like “Godzilla” is a portmanteau of “gorilla” and “kujira” (whale), “Yongary” (용가리) is similarly a combination of “yong” (용, dragon) and “pulgasari” (불가사리, an iron-eating monster from mythology), and likewise “Yongary” has entered the Korean popular lexicon simply to the image of something big and strong.

(Of course, the latter term “pulgasari” is somewhat loaded in the English-speaking fandom context because of the 1985 North Korean movie by that name (which, if you don’t know, is a whole can of worms), but it’s kind of a genericized “unkillable monster” word in Korean (fun fact: also a homophone for “starfish”). One of South Korea’s first monster movies from 1962 was also titled Pulgasari (totally lost, unfortunately), and there was also the final episode of the fairy tale puppet show Once Upon a Time (옛날 옛날에, airing 1979-1980, with the finale in 1981) that did a giant monster Pulgasari story (which was awesome, because puppet shows and kaiju go together like chocolate and peanut butter). Even after the hullabaloo with the North Korean film, when Tremors was released in South Korea, its Korean title was “Pulgasari”, pretty much eclipsing all the other films by that title!)

Back on Yongary, we needn’t say too much, since both of his movies are available and well-documented (the original is on Mystery Science Theater 3000, after all!). I think it’s fair to say that in all incarnations he’s very much a response to Godzilla, with the 1967 original popping in during the kaiju boom as Korean cinema was really starting to take off (the country had their first animated movie the same year), and the 1999 English-language remake Yonggary (called Reptilian here) exploiting 1998’s English-language Godzilla just as South Korea was becoming a power player on the international cinematic stage. And just like Godzilla, he’s had cute, animated adventures thanks to his position as a mascot for Yongary Chicken (dinosaur-shaped chicken tenders), along with his pals, a green triceratops named Yongyongi and pink female Yongary named Yongnali.

“But wait!” certain long-time die-hards might interject, “wasn’t there another Yongary movie between 1967 and 1999?” The answer to this is “No…..mostly.” See, there was a movie that came out in 1993, from the same director who directed the 1999 Yonngary, which some enterprising bootleggers back in the day figured they could sell as “Yongary 2”. A cursory glance at the monster makes it clear why:

But this movie, Young-gu and Princess Zzu Zzu (영구와 공룡 쮸쮸, which translates to “Young-gu and Dinosaur Zzu Zzu”, so not sure why everywhere lists it with the “Princess” title) actually has a lot more interesting of a franchise history than merely being a sequel or remake to Yongary. It’s an entry in the long-running Young-gu franchise, which is kind of like the Korean equivalent to Tyler Perry’s Madea or Jim Varney’s Ernest series: a dopey character gets into a variety of ridiculous situations. While the character of Young-gu entered the scene on television, he was immortalized by actor Hyung-Rae Shim in film starting in 1986, continuing until 2010.

Young-gu and Princess Zzu Zzu treads ground familiar to kaiju fans: while exploring an underground cavern during an earthquake, Young-gu finds and befriends a newborn dinosaur. After some ET-like hide-the-monster antics, the beast attracts the attention of gangsters, but also the parent dino. Young-gu and Zzu Zzu are kidnapped while the fully-grown therapod engages the military and trashes a city looking for its offspring. The movie is hardly spectacular, as the miniatures look amateur-tier, and while the adult dinosaur isn’t too rough (it has nice features like nostril wiggling and blinking eyes), the child dinosaur looks like one of those inflatable dinosaur Halloween costumes (though it also blinks). What’s more, while I don’t speak Korean, it certainly seems that the humor isn’t particularly sophisticated, relying on cues like “he made a funny face”, “he’s walking in fast motion”, and “his pants fell down.” That said, despite the timing of the release exploiting Jurassic Park’s dinosaur mania (i.e. it was released the same day), the titanic, bipedal, smoke-breathing saurian with a horn on its nose is nothing if not reminiscent of Yongary.

The movie is significant for being the first entry that Shim actually directed, and it served as the foundation of his studio Young-gu Arts, which would later make Yonggary and Dragon Wars. Shim sold his personal real estate investments in Gangnam to pay for the movie, wanting it to be a step up from the special effects in the prior films. Thus it was a major step towards Shim getting the perpetual rights to the Yongary character, and it shows his pride in the work that a statue of Zzu-zzu was erected outside of Young-gu Arts offices. For something still fondly remembered in the right Korean crowds, it’s a shame that no translated release (official or unofficial) has ever come to light.

Young-gu’s various cinematic misadventures frequently brought him into contact with science fiction and fantasy elements, likely due to Shim’s own interest and ambitions to establish South Korea in the special effects industry. Shim’s approach might generously be described as “backwards from conventional wisdom” (he views experience as a detriment, since it teaches you what’s not possible, so he prefers to minimize preparation), so the quality of the movies is usually significantly below what they’re attempting, but they have a charm to them in that respect, arguably peaking during the mid-1990s when Shim took the directorial reins.

Among the character’s earlier genre outings were Young-gu and Daeng Chiri (영구와 땡칠이, 1989), which was a riff on horror stuff, most notably the Mr. Vampire series out of Hong Kong, featuring Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, jiangshi, etc. The costume work there is minimal, but it did lead to incremental improvements with 1989’s Young-gu and Daeng Chiri go to the Shaolin Temple (Young-gu fights a giant centipede), 1990’s Young-gu and Daeng Chiri 3: Youn-gu Rambo (which features a killer robot), and 1991’s Young-gu and Daeng Chiri 4: Hong Kong Granny Ghost (with werewolf ninjas!). After the character went solo, there was also Youn-gu and Dracula in 1992, part of a big stream of “Young-gu meets X character” titles like Young-gu and the Three Musketeers, Young-gu and Phantom Thief Lupin, etc, which is what led up to Zzu-zzu.

The follow-up to Zzu zzu was 1994’s Yong-gu and the Space Monster (영구와 우주괴물 불괴리), which sees an invading alien force attempt to conquer the earth with a bipedal boar-like monster. The monster’s name, Bulgoeli, means “bullshit”, and apparently the flimsy costume caused problems for the crew during production, but it doesn’t look half bad on screen. There’s also a lot of hijinks involving a tiny flying saucer that resembles the Enterprise if it were missing one engine and had a googly eye stuck to the other, and some martial arts with the alien foot-soldiers.

1995 saw the release of another Young-gu adventure, even though his name isn’t in the title: Power King (파워킹). While it’s certainly an attempt to cash-in on Power Rangers, it’s worth noting that it has the same name in Korean as the anime Muteking, so the main hero’s red costume and visor might have been an attempt to double-dip on name value. This one sees Young-gu transform into a traditional superhero and take on a stock supervillain syndicate, and has a lot of decent action sequences. So many, in fact, that this movie actually did get the Power Rangers treatment, having the actor sequences re-filmed in America so a white dude stepped into the Young-gu role for the first and only time (only they call him “Barry”). This version, Armicron in Outlaw Power, was only released on VHS in the US, but it’s available on DVD in Germany as Power Warriors and in Hong Kong as Masked Rider AMC. A sequel titled New Power King was announced (there were even toys sold by that name in 1999), but much like Yonggary 2 and D-War 2, the picture never materialized.

Shim did one more Young-gu flick prior to Yonggary as a sort of finale for the character (and his acting career), and that’s 1996’s Dragon Tuka (드래곤 투카), in which he travels back in time to the 1500s and gets possessed by alien cops (who basically look somewhere between henshin heroes and head-to-toe motorcyclists) that are out to arrest a space crook and his huge quadrupedal dragon. Needless to say, that one is pretty much a blast (also, there’s Mortal Kombat music. And zombies). In some ways the medieval Joseon-era setting and plot revolving around a dragon demanding a sacrificial maiden was a precursor to the higher profile Dragon Wars, and it was better-received by critics than any of Shim’s subsequent movies. There was also a tie-in shooter game for PC titled Dragon Tuka 3D the following year, which’s fondly remembered. Oh, it’s also noteworthy that Hee-jun Park (Brothers in Heaven) got his start working on that movie.

One movie that doesn’t overtly appear to be part of the Youn-gu series, though some have claimed it features one of Young-gu’s ancestors, is Tyranno’s Claw (티라노의 손톱), which Shim directed in 1994 right after Zzu-zzu. More violent than anything else in his filmography, the movie is essentially an update to the Hammer classic One Million Years BC, featuring cave people speaking gibberish in a world populated by quite impressive animatronic and suitmation dinosaurs. A biproduct of the dialogue-free format is that this is one that’s quite accessible without subtitles, perhaps deliberately so, which may have helped pave the way towards the filmed-in-English later films like Yonggary, Dragon Wars, and The Last Godfather.

Of course, the Young-gu adventure of most interest to fans of Japanese superheroes would be 1991’s Young-gu and the Golden Bat (영구와 황금박쥐), directed by Ki-nam Nam. Since the original 1960s anime was popular in Korea (it got around the ban on Japanese media because a Korean studio worked on the backgrounds), it’s neat that fairly accurate replications of the Japanese Golden Bat hero and villains show up in this movie, along with a hoard of lower-rent monsters (one of whom looks suspiciously like a store-bought Gremlins mask).

I have to specify that Young-gu met the original Japanese Golden Bat because Korea has an entirely homegrown version as well who’s completely different…namely, he’s just yellow Batman. The character featured in the animated movie Black Star and the Golden Bat (1979), complete with a poster that ripped off Gatchaman, and has actually been marketed around the world as a straight-up Batman movie. The story gets better, though, since that character was then itself ripped off for the character of Super Betaman in the second Star Zzangga movie, 1990’s Super Betaman and Mazinger V (스타짱가2 슈퍼베타맨)… including the same pose on the poster!

For the movie Betaman was paired up with a giant robot who’s also a knock-off of a knock-off: Mazinger V was a palette-swapped version of Mazinger 7, from 1983’s Korean animation Super Express Mazinger 7 (known in the US as Protectors of Universe), which, as you may surmise, was taking a page from Mazinger Z. Naturally, this was a way to resell old model kits.

The film combines our live-action hero, who does the requisite Kamen Rider-style karate against a bunch of low-rent monsters, with animated giant robot scenes, but weirdly also has animated character sequences as well. There’s a villainess who looks suspiciously like Sister Jill from Cutie Honey and a heroic visored character who also feels lifted out of another franchise, both carrying over from the original Robot Star Zzangga (로보트 스타짱가) from 1988.

(That wasn’t even the only Batman knock-off, either, since there was also Eagleman, the Warrior of Heaven (이글맨) in 1991, exploiting Tim Burton Batmania in Hollywood. Eagleman has a grappling hook and utility belt, wears all black and yellow, and despite being an “eagle”-themed hero, he fights crime by night like Bats. That said, the level of hand-to-hand chop-socky puts any of the Hollywood Batman movies to shame.)

Super Betaman was far from unique as a live-action Korean superhero to costar with an animated giant robot. We already mentioned the original Star Zzangga, which takes a similar approach (and sometimes gets accused of copying design elements from Xabungle), but it was just one of many. For example, 1987’s Hwarang-V Trio (화랑브이 삼총사), 1987’s Thunder Dragon from Outer Space (외계 우뢰용) (which took designs from Flashman), 1987’s The King of Black Star and the Super Prince (흑성 마왕 과 슈퍼 왕자) (which took designs from Gundam and Transformers), 1987’s Macarian Go (마카리안 고), 1988’s Alien Cobra (외계인 코브라) (whose robot resembles Dynaman‘s), and 1990’s Taekwon V ’90 (로보트 태권V 90) use the same method. Taekwon V is particularly noteworthy, since it’s been running as an animated film series since the 1970s (you might know the character as Voltar the Invincible or “that Korean Mazinger Z“), going for a live-action/animation hybrid with its ninth entry. Of course, there was also the attempt at a full live-action Taekwon V in 2009 that never went beyond a pretty decent proof-of-concept movie, but you can argue that a CGI robot carries on the spirit of all the hand-animated ones.

The animation/live-action hybrid format was popularized by the Wooroimae or Urume (우뢰매 can get Romanized different ways), or “Thunderhawk” series, which consisted of nine movies from Wuroi-Mae From Outer Space (1986) to Ureme the Invincible Fighter (1993). The series revolves around the space hero Esperman, played by none other than Hyung-Rae Shim.

The titular Thunderhawk is Esperman’s transforming robot, which turns from a hawk form into a humanoid warrior that…well, might look a little familiar. See, they repurposed model kits of the Phoenix Thunderhawk from the 1985 anime Ninja Senshi Tobikage for the merchandise line, and thus our protagonist wound up being an unauthorized knock-off of that mecha.

Eventually the series changed the design to avoid infringement on Tobikage, but it still played it fairly fast-and-loose when it came to influences, so some designs may look familiar, particularly to Diaclone fans. (One of the movies even used actual Zoids kits for props!) Esperman himself also got an upgrade for the sixth picture, at which point he looked an awful lot like Captain Power.

Plans for a Wooroimae reboot were floating around as recently as 2017, but even in the modern era, the franchise still manages to get itself into IP hot water. When a graphic novel was announced, whoever did it just copied Jim Lee’s artwork from Superman Unchained, which certainly ticked off the famous (and notably Korean American) artist.

Overt attempts at exploiting the popularity of anime aren’t limited to single elements, though, sometimes a hit title would just get lifted whole cloth. The standout in this category is the filmography of Ryong Wang, a martial artist/actor-turned-director who produced a whole host of live-action adaptations. Let’s start with the most famous one, because it’s an adaptation of one of the biggest hits in the history of Japanese animation: 1990’s Dragon Ball.

Despite being the first live-action adaptation of Akira Toriyama’s classic and a bootleg product, this Dragon Ball is somehow still the most faithful, most entertaining adaptation, heartily beating out both the Taiwanese Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins and the American Dragon Ball: Evolution. The characters look right and act in-character based on what fans of the property would know, including Hyung-Rae Shim himself in the Master Roshi role. It does take some liberties, such as having Nappa inexplicably there as one of Pilaf’s henchmen, and it throws in a couple of robot suits from Sparkman (we’ll get back to that title in a bit) as well as the giant centipede from Young-gu and Daeng Chiri go to the Shaolin Temple, but generally it’s a fun mash-up of wirework kung-fu, tokusatsu-style action, and gags from the source material. I really wish Shueisha, Bird Studio, Toei, and the other companies with the Dragon Ball rights could play ball (no pun intended) to get this movie rescued, restored, and re-released in higher quality than the VHS rips currently in circulation!

Apparently, there was a bit of a winning combination there, since in 1992 Ryong Wang re-teamed with his young actor Seong-tae Heo, still sporting Goku hair, for the Kangdagu Fighter (깡다구 화이터) series. It’s nominally based on Tatsuyoshi Kobayashi’s manga Little Cop, but also includes heavy elements lifted from SD Gundam (such as the hero robot) and Dragon Ball (such as the alien villains), which the studio Daewon justified since they were the Korean distributor for both properties at the time. The main character also uses a gun out of Winspector, and some Sharivan footage also shows up!

There were other South Korean Dragon Ball knockoffs at the time as well; such as the animated movie Super Kid (1995), and the live-action Dragon Boy (드래곤보이) from 1991, which features a kid kung-fu fighting aliens while dressed like the hero of Mashin Hero Wataru.

Shonen Jump’s other major martial arts property of the era, Fist of the North Star, has had unauthorized live-action adaptations around the world, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, even Italy (not to mention the authorized American version). Naturally, Korea got in on the game as well with 1993’s Bugdu ui Gwon (북두의권), also directed by Ryong Wang. Much like the more famous American effort, this movie is relatively bloodless compared to its source material, but it does get credit for attempting to recreate a few of the weird blurry/glowing martial arts effects from the anime.

As if that wasn’t enough Jump action, Wang also adapted Yu Yu Hakusho with The Crazy Ghost (정신나간 유령) trilogy in 1992. Oddly enough, despite being an authorized adaptation (unlike Fist of the North Star), Crazy Ghost is a pretty loose retelling, taking the broad strokes of the source material without being immediately recognizable… for example, Hiei is a weird monkey demon and Kurama is female. Still, for how popular the original is, it’s quite surprising that this isn’t better-known…perhaps it’ll have a renaissance when the Netflix live-action version hits?

The same year, Wang gave us Street Fire (맹구짱구 스트리트 화이어), which is pretty blatantly riffing on Street Fighter II. From the clips online, it doesn’t look like the best adaptation of the video game to live-action, but also not the worst. Also, it starts with some Super Sentai stock footage of buildings blowing up, for some reason.

(Note that this is not to be confused with Street Fighter (스트리트 파이터 가두쟁패전), a different, prior live-action adaptation made in Korea, which is actually a bit better. That one takes place in the far future of 2010, and the world is populated by radioactive mutants, explaining the weird character designs.)

(Oh, and there was also Taekwon V/Thunderhawk creator Cheong-gi Kim’s Street Fighter Q (스트리트 파이터 Q, 1992), which has nothing to do with the Street Fighter 3 character named Q, but does have one of the aliens from the Space Police series (more on that in a bit) and features the main cast getting trained by Dragon Ball’s Master Roshi. Basically, there were a lot of Korean Street Fighter adaptations, each one wackier than the previous.)

Ryong Wang did a few other knock-off movies, including adaptations of Iron Fist Chinmi and Magical Hat, but there’s only so many hours in the day. So instead, let’s pivot to an original (-ish) property of his that should appeal to tokusatsu fans: 1991’s Fighting Man (화이팅맨). Now, it’s oft speculated that there might have been some aesthetic influence of Metal Heroes on RoboCop (there absolutely is in the opposite direction), but this movie takes a bold stance in ripping off both and pitting a transforming metallic hero against a villainous RoboCopy android. Also, Seong-tae Heo shows up in a lead role again.

(Speaking of RoboCopy crossovers, there’s also a brief gag of one in 1993’s Hong Gil-dong vs. Terminator (홍길동 대 터미네이터), which was one a few Korean Terminator knock-offs at the time.)

(Heck, Korea loved RoboCop so much that he even got to share Yongary’s honor of selling fried chicken.)

It might not even be fair to say that Fighting Man was directly Metal Heroes-inspired, since there was actually a whole movement of Metal Heroes-inspired Korean cinema during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The high-water mark is likely 1988’s Sparkman (스파크맨) a Hyung-Rae Shim flick where he plays a little more serious, though there’s still a bit of comedy (including some toilet humor/nudity that might not go over well with all audiences). The film oozes with influence from Spielban and Maskman, and really does look as good in parts, with a cool hero, cool villains, and cool giant robots (who are live effects, not animated! They got reused for Dragon Ball, remember?).

One of the longer-running series of Korean superheroes was Mask Bandal (반달가면), or “Half-moon Mask”, who had six films from 1990-1992, and became sort of a calling card for BUM Production, one of the biggest studios for Korean children’s films at the time (and the successor to Seoul Fairytale Production, who had made the Thunderhawk films). As the name might imply, this is sort of Korea’s answer to Japan’s first TV superhero Gekko Kamen (“Moonlight Mask”), but the initial design was actually based on Mad Gallant from Juspion, figures of whom were repainted to make the first wave of Mask Bandal figures.

One of the initial gimmicks was that it wasn’t clear if the main character (notably played by singer Heung-Gook Kim, not a comedian like most heroes of the day) was actually the secret identity of Mask Bandal or not, as the two would sometimes share screen time. Of course, he actually was, and it turns out he had an assistant to step in and help out, resulting in numerous different Bandal Mask hero characters over the course of the film franchise.

It wasn’t just Metal Heroes that inspired imitation in South Korea; Super Sentai did as well, so there were a few color-coded hero teams running around. One that seems to come up quite a bit is 1992’s Space Police Human Power (우주경찰 휴먼 파워), about a trio of alien protectors representing love, fraternity, and service. Since the whole industry is kind of recursive, the film was directed by Taekwon V/Thunderhawk creator Cheong-gi Kim (hence the alien reuse for Street Fighter Q), and the team’s leader (who’s orange instead of red) was played by the dub voice of Goku in Dragon Ball! A sequel, sometimes called Space Police Human Power 2, but sometimes called Three Superpowers: Thunder Bigman (3인의 초능력자 썬더 빅맨), hit the same year, with a similar premise and similar heroic trio, but slightly differing in design.

That brings us to one of the wildest titles to generally fly under the radar in English-speaking fandom: 1991’s Morph Warrior Trans And Toady (변신전사 트랜스 토디), which I really think is due for rediscovery and cult film status.

So, I’ll just start with the elephant in the room, since it’s a quirk of the evolving English language: this movie features a team of five color-coded, transforming superheroes (of varying races, which was pretty much unheard of in Sentai knock-offs prior to Power Rangers!), and the name of that team is…well… they’re called Transman. You’ve got Trans Dragon, Trans Tiger, and Trans Jaguar (the guys), and Trans Lion and Trans Eagle (the girls), so it’s similar to Liveman or Jetman, except with the awkwardness of having to explain that, to the best of my knowledge, this was more about playing into the popularity of Transformers than making any statement on gender dysphoria.

(Of course, if the transgender community wanted to appropriate this team, they’ve already got a sweet logo ready to go onto t-shirts and patches and whatnot. Just saying….)

To really nail down that the “Trans” in the team name is for mockbuster purposes, the Transman team even have a giant mecha, Alpha Base Robot, which is basically Overlord from Transformers:

However, Transman aren’t even the real heroes of the movie, since that honor goes to Toady (or “Tody” as his T-shirt says), an alien frog dude. Toady has super kung fu skills and powers like shooting beams from his hands and streams of poison gas from his butt; he even dies and comes back to life! (As for why a suitmation amphibian martial artist would be the hero of a children’s movie in 1991, one would have to assume that a certain set of reptilian teenage mutant ninjas would be to blame.)

In true tokusatsu spirit, it wasn’t just the Alpha Base Robot that was merchandised, but there was also a soft vinyl figure of the villain kaiju Kukulgan and the crab robot Crobo as well.

Anyway, the movie (or movies, since the three-hour runtime is usually broken up into two parts) is a madcap delight, bouncing all over the place. Just take a look at a few random screencaps and tell me it doesn’t look interesting:

At this point, having mentioned animated robots superimposed onto live-action actors, designs from toys, and Ninja Turtles exploitation, I’m sure the savvy reader is screaming “what about the 1989 movie Our Friend Power 5 (우리들의 친구 파워 5)?” Have no fear, there’s no going through this subject and not mentioning the infamous, blatant attempt to coopt both TMNT and Machine Robo (American reviewers tend to call them Gobots) into one weird project.

Our Friend Power 5 is a weird kind of outlier in that it seems to be better-known in the English-language fandom than in the Korean one. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only title on this article to have gotten fansubbed, and I’d have to credit the sizable Ninja Turtles fandom for that. However, I imagine for Korean audiences, the movie has none of the crazy novelty value for being a blatant unauthorized cash-in that it does with Western fans; if nothing else I hope I’m communicating the frequency with which these kinds of copyright nightmare exploitation flicks were produced in the late 80s and early 90s.

Actual TMNT fans will probably have a meltdown with the treatment of the property, since it’s evident that the characters were basically modeled after the Playmates figures with little else taken into consideration. There are five turtle heroes in the movie, they all have red bandanas, but they’re color-coded by their shells (pink, yellow, blue, brown, and black), and they’re aliens fighting another group of aliens, namely rat creatures based on Splinter. So, yeah, the giant robots are probably the least problematic element for die-hards. One would think these changes could have been made to obfuscate the characters for plausible trademarking deniability, but the toy-line referred to them as “Teenage Mutant Turtles” nevertheless.

The low-rent hero productions go on and on, and the more I look, the more crop up. Just to rattle off a few more, there’s the gold helmet guys in The Trio Stars (삼중성, 1991), or the yellow-and-black Space Warrior, Fireman (우주 전사 불의 사나이, 1991). There were also quite a few more Hyung-Rae Shim vehicles, like Don Quixote and Sancho Commando (돈키호테 형래와 산쵸 특공대, 1991), A Policeman Hyung-Lae and Trio of Insect (포졸 형래와 벌레 삼총사, 1990) from Vandal Mask director Jong-ho Lim, and Black Knight (흑기사 형래와 광대들, 1990), which has a pretty blatant Darth Vader helmet on the title character.

As far as straight-up creature features go, I’d also be remiss not to mention 1983’s Grudge of the Sleepwalking Woman (몽녀한), a Korean/Taiwanese coproduction. Unfortunately, the original version of this flick with a snake woman somnambulist appears to be gone, but the 1988 Godfrey Ho re-edit Scorpion Thunderbolt is available fairly widely, if you don’t mind gratuitous Caucasian actors sprinkled in. The monster, funnily enough, doesn’t look like either of the films’ posters would have you believe.
(Fun fact: Grudge of the Sleepwalking Woman’s director Beom-gu Gam also directed A Monstrous Corpse (괴시), South Korea’s first zombie movie, in 1981. Japan wouldn’t start on the zombie game for another decade after!)

Of course, the late 1990s and early 2000s changed the Korean moviemaking landscape tremendously, and now it’s seen as a power-player on the international cinematic stage. One of the names leading the charge, Joon-ho Bong, has huge international special effects co-productions like Okja and Snowpiercer, and even won the Academy Award for his drama Parasite. Bong first got on a lot of western radar for 2006’s monster movie The Host, which I sometimes get called out for not including on my rundowns of kaiju films. Here’s my rationale: there’s nothing overtly “kaiju” about the monster on surface level, since it seems more like just another big CGI beastie than anything in the Tsuburaya aesthetic. There’s a case to be made for it, though, if you compare it to the 2002 anime WXIII: Patlabor, which also features a slimy, amphibious man-eater brought about by human pollution (which, due to its genesis as an adaptation of an adaptation of a parody of kaiju flicks, absolutely counts), but both the Korean distributors of The Host and the creators of Patlabor maintain that any similarities are coincidental…ergo, not “kaiju”.  Which is not a qualitative judgement, just saying that it’s doing its own thing.

Modern Korean genre filmmaking has been doing its own thing quite successfully as of late, with excellent content like Train to Busan, Sector 7, The Mimic, Sweet Home, Arahan, Monstrum, and countless others. It’s got its own identity, and seldom leans on adapting Japanese or Hollywood content anymore (possibly owing in part to the country adopting the Berne Convention in 1996), with rare examples such as A-lister Jee-woon Kim’s Illang: the Wolf Brigade (adapting Jin-roh) or Power Rangers Dino Force Brave (an original sequel to Kyoryuger). And even then, some have been wildly unique takes, much to my personal chagrin with cases such as City Hunter. The relative availability of K-dramas, K-pop, and even webtoons compared to their conservative Japanese contemporaries is resulting in a global audience shift, and thus we’re seeing large American streaming sites like Crunchyroll and Netflix pouring resources into Korean productions. Rather than aping (A*P*ING?) other nations like it did before, Korean pop culture has become a heavyweight in its own right in just two decades, and I expect we’ll see a lot more of it in the future.

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While I’m at it, here are a few of the Korean TV shows that utilize the henshin hero format. These are kind of after the time period covered in the article, but I know someone will comment otherwise. Maybe they’ll get their own run-through at some point in the future:

  • Earth Warriors Vectorman, (지구용사 벡터맨), 1998
  • Environmental Warrior Zenta Force (환경전사 젠타포스), 2003
  • Power Master Maxman (수호전사 맥스맨), 2004
  • Erexion (이레자이온), 2006
  • Environmental Garrison WildForce (환경수비대 와일드포스) 2008
  • VoLTE Ranger (광속전사 볼테레인저/光速戰士 VoLTE Ranger), 2012
  • Chul Dong! K-Cop (출동!케이캅), 2015
  • Legend Hero Samgugjeon (레전드히어로 삼국전), 2016
  • X-Garion (엑스가리온), 2019
  • Nano Fighters LOKAPA ( 나노전사 로카파) 2020
  • GUNBLADE, never released
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2 Responses to Old-school Special Effects with S(e)oul

  1. David Fullam says:

    I take it you are aware that Kaiju translates as “Strange Beast.” If the creature from The Host is not a strange beast, then I don’t know what the hell is.

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