Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla ★★★

An Essay on Japanese and Korean Disaster Movies vs American Disaster Movies
Before we dive into this essay on what American big-budget disaster/monster movies could learn from Asian cinema I’d like to quickly say my thoughts on Shin Godzilla as a film on its own. Shin Godzilla is a well-directed and acted ride full of thrills and laughs even if some of the effects work and musical choices are off point. The film takes an interesting twist on the Godzilla story by, as opposed to focusing on the monster and the people in the carnage, it focuses on the political heads in charge of the military and evacuation side of things and it has a larger time span than most disaster films (chronicling four attacks) and its these decisions that make it stand out from the pack and worthy of a recommendation. Anyway, on with my brief essay:

I love Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong re-make but in my opinion, it is the only great (alongside 28 Days Later if you count zombie films) monster/disaster film of the 21st century made for a big-budget in the 21st century. The only one that I can legitimately say that it’s well made, that it fleshes out its characters, is fantastically crafted and I can call an excellent film. However in terms of monsters/disaster/zombie movies in Asia there are plenty- and that’s just the ones that have crossed over- and they’re all great. So now let’s take a look at what Hollywood can learn from Korean and Japanese big-budget fare.

Establishing your characters and who to root for is one of the most crucial elements of a disaster film- movies like the independent and low-key Monsters from Gareth Edwards in fact focus entirely upon the characters, using the monster plot as a background for interpersonal relationships and dilemmas- but the problem with most modern DMM (Disaster, Monster, Movies) is their forced characterisation in the first five minutes before never addressing these motives or stories in an effective way again. In films like 2013’s World War Z or Cloverfield spend so little and such forced time to make you care that ou don’t.
Korean and Japanese films of the like however spend time fleshing out character motivations and building upon the characters arcs within the attack to create an even more satisfying conclusion than a simple good vs evil tale. Let’s compare two scenes, one from 2016’s Patriots Day (a pretty good film by the way as well) which sees two characters in bed when a man says that a girl can either stay in bed all day or go to the Boston Marathon- which was of course later bombed. Another scene tries to build up a romance between a scientist and a policeman. These scenes are so short and contribute and build up to nothing within the story. Now let’s look at the backstory of the two protagonists in 2016’s Train to Busan, an absolutely excellent zombie flick directed by Yeon Sang-Ho. In it we get a good twenty minutes of building up this story about a workaholic father his daughter and it’s the act of trying to make up for not seeing his daughter’s presentation at school that makes our protagonist bring her on the train in the first place.
In films like The Host and Train to Busan our characters fight, separate and interconnect throughout creating fleshed out and fun to watch character interactions that keep things interesting throughout instead of just the plain old father-protecting-kids story Train to Busan has a blossoming friendship and a new found relationship as well as new mother figure-daughter dynamic.

Characters are pivotal to a DMM film but from their very beginnings in the 1930s with their B-Movie origins, disaster and monster movies are made to thrill and entertain- alongside heists they are the ultimate popcorn genre and though the best creature features do more than that to entertain is their main goal so for the reason the correct execution of creature design and the damage made by the central event of the film is invaluable. First let’s look at one of the important aspects of this in my opinion; crowd reactions- which has long been one of my biggest film pet peeves.
The character interactions and motivations at the start of Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal are genuinely refreshingly fantastic but some confusing character moves in the second half send it on a downward spiral. However, for me it’s the portrayal of the disaster itself that reduces it from great to 3/5 mediocrity. In the film, a monster terrorises the people of Seoul, South Korea, we don’t see mass reactions until the fourth or fifth attack where Anne Hathaway confronts Jason Sudekis in the middle of Seoul. Though this place should be abandoned after a handful of attacks anyway that’s beside the point as what’s really of note is the people of Seoul themselves: none of them hysteric all just still in their cars even though they knew what time it was coming, all watching; no one running away, no one hysterical just people ether running away or stupidly stopping to look- that’s just lazy screenwriting. In Shin Godzilla after the initial attack people are evacuated, whole cities are cordoned off and we get a first-hand showing of the political decisions behind all these moves and the moral dillemas that come with trying to keep everyone happy in this sort of situation whilst in The Host people are immediately contaminated and no one is shown any sympathy or time to look at dead loved ones- these extra layers of realism just add to the film in an indescribable way.
In terms of DMM films, creature design is make or break as well. Sure creature design can be pivotal to sci-fi and fantasy films as well (Pan’s Labyrinth succeeds whilst Stranger Things fails) it’s most crucial to these types of films in my opinion. Of course, in a lot of movies I’ve discussed like Patriots Day and Poseidon and others they don’t have creatures per say (it’s the environment or situation that acts as the villain, as well as those responsible) but monster films all have them and in the 21st century very few stand out. Take Steven Spielberg’s 2005 effort War of the Worlds- for the most part it’s a suspenseful and realistic ride through an alien invasion but the ship design does so little to inspire that it lets down a third act plagued by disbelief anyway. Attack on Titan, Godzilla: Resurgence and The Host all have incredibly satisfying character designs that leave you wanting more and without it the end could prove the films wrongdoing.

Ever since Paul Greengrass made his slow yet well-crafted 9/11 suspense drama United 93 in 2006 many directors (particularly Pete Berg) have copied his documentary-style aesthetic but in the Bourne films by Greengrass the shot-reverse-shot techniques are used to give you a sense that you as the viewer are spying on the heads of government and in the Bourne franchise it’s effective but in a film like Deepwater Horizon or Patriots Day where Berg devotes time, particularly in the former, to developing character it takes you out of the story and makes you care less about the people in the film and their goals.
Another frustrating aspect of big-budget fare is a constantly locked-down tone of over-drama that leaves you exhausted and graded, most disaster films are either high-brow or gritty affair depending upon the event and stylistic choices/presentation but there’s no film that experiments with tone or genre within the story. Take The Host (and I’m sick of using it as an example at this point too) which has elements of action, horror, sci-fi and even noir in the films best moment. If the Hollywood execs let directors like John Vongt-Roberts (Kong: Skull Island) or Gareth Edwards (Godzilla 2014) play with tone more in their films instead of the old comedic one-liner or joke forced into the drama then we would get much better results.

All in all this isn’t just Hollywood being poor its also Japanese and Korean film-making being at a high with recent Ghibli material outdoing recent Disney and Pixar animated fare (with exceptions of course), The Handmaiden taking on the erotic thriller, Okja being a care-free and loose heist comedy and Mrs K pushing female empowerment within cinema in a bad-ass manner that I would recommend endlessly Asian film seems to be conquering all corners where Hollywood is failing and that’s a good thing as the more Asian-American crossovers there are the better as its great that directors like Bong Joon-Ho and Park Chan-Wook are being given the budgets to carry out their visions but Hollywood needs improving- and fast.

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