Gyeongseong Creature: Season 1 REVIEW – Korea In The Time Of Monsters

The creature isn't the worst thing lurking around Gyeongseong.

gyeongseong creature

The obvious way to describe Gyeongseong Creature would be as a Korean Godzilla, the special-effects monster a shameless metaphor for what was happening to their country during World War II. Though for that analogy to really work, Godzilla would have to have been tearing up Tokyo during the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because here the CGI beastie is right alongside its unpleasant inspiration.

Despite getting top billing, the creature itself is merely one of the many symptoms of the Japanese occupation – it is directly borne of some of the Imperial Japanese Army’s nasty practices. So from the off the show has its feet grounded firmly in history, and in some fairly weighty historical material too. Viewers will quickly either get a sense of grim foreboding, or a nasty shock.

While it’s a wartime production, it’s not a war production, but the fact it’s not on the front lines isn’t a disadvantage. If anything, this provides a great deal more texture than one side fighting the other – here we have the uneasy relations between the army, the colonial police, the big willies from the imperial core, and the local movers and shakers. Even with a literal invading colonial army there’s room for nuance and the messiness of the human experience.

Our main man here is the classic WWII figure of the spiv, and what a spiv he is, wheeling, dealing, knowing everyone, and making an art form of how politely cheeky he can be to the occupiers and get away with it. Even if he’s better at high kicks, he’s a similar figure to Rick in Casablanca, or indeed Renee in ‘Allo ‘Allo!, wanting to keep out of things and make his money until morality intrudes in a way he simply can’t ignore.

The well-publicised nature of the media’s favourite of all the world wars perhaps makes some of this a foregone conclusion, but the drama and the sheer stakes have been able to keep people’s interest since 1946, and certainly keep it here. Here is perhaps the slim silver lining of WWII being a truly global war, that it allows people from all four corners of the earth to effortlessly identify with any of the other three.

To state the obvious, Gyeongseong Creature is a Korean production through and through – still bristling and raw at Japan’s history in their country, and playing bubbly k-pop over the credits of more than a few episodes, no matter how discordant it might be. The fact Korea was called ‘Joseon’ and Seoul was called ‘Gyeongseong’ in those days may throw some viewers, but probably not for long.

Far more than any of the business with the creature, this is Gyeongseong Creature’s greatest strength. It’s not taking you into another world, but likely will be taking you into another country at another time, and typically makes this look effortless.

As this goes, Gyeongseong Creature sometimes tips its hand too far with its flashbacks, and is a bit too ready to flash back, sometimes ‘reminding’ us of scenes that were scarcely half an hour ago. But generally, it works, not least because they break up what would otherwise be one long, bleak sequence in an underground military facility, a sequence which can really stand a bit of breaking-up.

On that subject, though, the scenery and staging is gorgeous throughout – even the secret military base I found myself wanting reprieves from is pretty sumptuous in its way. And the street scenes down in old Gyeongseong really capture that prestige historical drama magic, it’s those as much as anything else that’ll make you wonder ‘God, why do the Imperial Japanese Army have to be such dicks about everything?’

At times Gyeongseong Creature’s more lighthearted moments can seem almost childish, like the fearless playboy male lead getting all choked up and nervous around the female lead. But as incongruous as this might feel, it’s also a very welcome reprieve from the show’s unflinching depiction of torture and human experimentation. About the only place it’s reluctant to go on that score is outright sexual violence, and even then, it alludes to it in such a way as to leave no doubt what it’s talking about.

Even with that caveat, you could call some of it gratuitous, if it wasn’t straightforwardly based on fact (not a link for the faint-hearted). But for the CGI monster, and honestly here it isn’t that big a ‘but’, this is a plainspoken period piece about Korea under Japanese occupation (if at times it seems a little harsh to the Japanese, consider the Western equivalent, a period piece about, say, Belgium or Slovenia while occupied by Nazi Germany) – not wholly factual, no, but pretty far from made up.

For this reason you can forgive the shamelessly sentimental moments, with light piano interludes stuck all over them. Once or twice these are misjudged in a similar sort of way to the flashbacks, and here I’m thinking of the long, emotional monologue that takes place while a back-alley fight scene is still going on, but usually they fit nicely into place.

Perversely, towards the end I found myself thinking that Gyeongseong Creature might even have been better if the creature – although it gets its name on the marquee – wasn’t even a part of it. Certainly it’s a useful MacGuffin, and it does hold plot valence beyond just being a creature, it’s not just a sideshow. But it’s also the prime example of the show’s more fanciful moments, and these moments very frequently serve to undercut tough choices and scenes of real emotional weight.

Like those flashbacks these fanciful touches could be seen as a reprieve from what is otherwise a fairly gritty experience, if you’re inclined to view the show charitably. And in all honesty, once you get started you probably will be. Somewhere between the realism and the fantasism, Gyeongseong Creature strikes that prized balance of carrying you along with it, into its story.

READ MORE: Biggest New Games of January 2024

Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site.

gyeongseong creature
As advertised, it’s got Gyeongseong, and it’s got a creature – but it’s that former part that’s the key to it, it’s got people, like you, all trying to get along in a historically dramatic time. The few nagging loose ends can be forgiven in the face of a genuinely compelling watch.