Thursday 5 January 2012

Shaolin vs Frankenstein (2012)

Director: Nam Ki-nam
Star: Shim Hyung-rae

Here's a first for Apocalypse Later. This isn't just an obscure movie, it's an obscure movie that I'm in. So is my wife. And my stepson. Even his ginger teddy bear of a BFF. Well, we're sort of in this film. You could hardly call us actors. Damon Foster, editor of the glorious and long running Oriental Cinema magazine, took three forgotten Korean comedy features starring Shim Hyung-rae as an apparently retarded hero called Young Gu, recut them into a single ninety minute film with a new story that pokes fun at the originals while staying surprisingly close to the spirit of them, stripped the original language soundtrack and brought in a varied set of voice actors to record new dialogue in English. As I found out here, as I debuted as a voice actor, it isn't as easy as it looks. Some of my lines came out OK and I did get a delightfully inappropriate nuance into one dubious scene, but I learned enough to know I'd do most of it a little differently next time.
There are two things to know about Shaolin vs Frankenstein. One is that it's not a good movie but it hardly pretends to be. The second is that it's full to the brim with pure and unadulterated awesomeness. I couldn't help but imagine a trailer for it done in true fifties drive-in style with a host of text banners hurled up onto the screen. 'Vampires! Werewolves! Dinosaurs! Zombies! Aliens! It's the whole Universal Union of Monsters in a Kung Fu Bonanza! Thrill as a Shaolin monk takes on Frankenstein's monster! Recoil in terror as the mighty Yongary stomps buildings, downs planes and destroys helicopters! Sigh at Count Dracula, Vampira and their hopping vampire son! Be amazed by the Flying Japanese Superhero, the Golden Bat! Lust after those Beautiful Girls, the Eurasian Granddaughters of Van Helsing!' You know that few movies ever lived up to such huckster advertising but this comes close, as long as the awesomeness is all you're looking for.

As a story, this is an inventive melding of three Young Gu movies from the early nineties which faded quickly away into obscurity because, as Foster points out on the extra 'Behind the Scenes' featurette on the DVD, even Koreans didn't find them funny. As he tells it, two thirds of them are nothing but really juvenile toilet humour that even he, a dedicated Asian movie buff, found nigh on impossible to get through. He left in a few fart and pee jokes and started everything out with outrageously inappropriate gay humour but for the most part, all that filler is thankfully history. What he kept are the awesome bits, namely the monsters, the kung fu and the action. He then found a way to merge the similar but generally unrelated storylines together to draft out a new story that makes something close to coherent sense, at least in the world of awesome movies. I don't think there's a single realistic frame in the whole thing, but it still makes insane sense.

How's this for an awesome concept? An alien monster called Andromeda King and his new wave coiffured sidekick are creating the Universal Union of Monsters. They revive Chiun Dracula, the Eurasian grandson of Count Dracula, and his family, a flying vampire bride and their delightfully cute guansi son. They arrive at a creepy house on Jackie Chan Mountain with a werewolf butler to resurrect Frankenstein's monster, but instead they spend their time kidnapping the Eurasian granddaughters of their hereditary enemy Van Helsing. Meanwhile the giant monster Yongary and his kawaii baby dinosaur son have been raised by a zombie boss to wreak terror and stomp stuff. Pledged to stop them is the Golden Bat, a skull faced flying mummy from Atlantis who can fight like the best of them but who relies instead on the good heart of bumbling retard Young Gu and his brother, a Shaolin monk with every speech impediment in the book.
I'd love to see the original Young Gu movies to find out just how much of this glorious insanity is really there. After all, every bit of footage we see is entirely untouched, only the soundtrack and order of scenes being altered. More accurately, I really want to see the first of the three, 1989's Young Gu and Deng Chili, also known as Young Gu vs Count Dracula, because that's where all the monsters come from, along with the Shaolin monk. I'm even more intrigued because Deng Chili is apparently a dog, the Korean version of Lassie, whose footage was cut completely out of this reworking. The second source picture is Young Gu and the Golden Bat from 1992, which also looks interesting, because of the flying superhero, the swordfighting and and its intriguing pair of villains. However 1993's Young Gu and the Dinosaur Juju looks extremely painful because the good bits aren't even good and they're totally repetitive.

To be fair to the original filmmakers, there are some great shots in those first two movies. Some of the movements of the vampire bride and the werewolf are superbly shot and even their poses are often great fun. The baby guangsi is a delight, but then I'm a sucker for hopping vampires. Many of the fight scenes are well staged, albeit in a pulp manner. Yet I'm hard pressed to find a single shot of the dinosaurs that isn't embarrassing. An actor in a rubber suit stomping on a city is always fun for a while but this is neither a good suit nor a good city and even cut down to the good bits, these scenes just run on and on. I can't imagine how tiring they must feel with all the bad bits put back in. They're the biggest problem to Foster's merging of three stories into one as they slow down the pace considerably. I don't care about cardboard sets, plot conveniences and Scooby Doo logic in a film like this, but boring bits are unforgiveable.

Fortunately Foster keeps them to a minimum and, like all the various movies he's resurrected in this sort of fashion, he deserves the majority of credit. He found the source material, edited it all together and wrote the new script, including all the jokes. He even provided what must be half the voices, including the main ones. That's a lot of work and it took him a couple of years to get it to the point of release. We voice actors just showed up and added some dialogue for him to edit in. I played a couple of smaller parts, including the white hatted henchmen of the zombie boss, and I did OK, I guess, for a first attempt. My wife is Dracula's bride. My stepson nailed a few of his roles, including a helicopter pilot and a newsreader, and stretched his vocal talents as a cool character called Unleashed Wickedness. Some voice actors had a little more experience to bring to bear and Paul Hemmes and Kim Wagner in particular did great jobs.
I loved the whole experience of being part of this project and thank Damon for inviting me and my family to join in. Hopefully I'll get to do something similar again on a future picture where I can continue to improve and build some character into my parts the way some of my more experienced colleagues succeeded in doing here. If only Damon could clone himself a hundred times, I could do this sort of thing every weekend. It sure beats overtime at work and I'm sure there are plenty of other obscure movies sitting on Damon's shelves that are worthy of bringing back to some sort of prominence. I certainly need to watch some of the other pictures that he's already done, including Monkey War and Shaolin vs Terminator. I've seen Young Flying Hero, aka Return of the Magic Serpent, which was often fun but much slower and less full of awesomeness than this one. Naturally I'll post reviews here when I catch up with them. Thanks again, Damon!

Shaolin vs Frankenstein will be available for purchase at Damon Foster's World later this year. Already there are highly recommended back issues of Oriental Cinema magazine and many previous Damon Foster films.

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