ancient curses and merciless violence make for a lacklustre watch

Yeon Sang-ho has already proven his mettle as a virtuoso in the South Korean filmmaking sphere – he emerged as a household name in 2016 with the hit zombie film Train To Busan, later hitting the mark again last year with his first television series Hellbound. Novel explorations into the supernatural and horror genres are clearly Yeon’s forte, so when it was revealed that he had co-written the screenplay for streaming platform TVING’s latest original offering, Monstrous, expectations were understandably high.

Under the direction of A Midsummer’s Fantasia director Kang Kun-jae, Monstrous kicks off in the fictional South Korean county of Jinyang, where its local administration are alerted to the discovery of the head of a Buddha statue, with its eyes blindfolded. Believing it to be a sign of good fortune, Jinyang’s governor orders for the statue to be unearthed in its entirety and transported to the county’s centre, where it would be displayed as part of an exhibition at the Jinyang county office.

News of the statue reaches Jung Ki-hoon (Koo Kyo-hwan), the editor and publisher of occult magazine Monthly Mysteries, who also helms an accompanying YouTube channel dedicated to uncovering the “real mysteries of Asia”. He dedicates a page of the magazine’s latest edition to the bizarre statue, and subsequently catches the attention of Buddhist monks from the Jecheon Order Buddhism Research Lab. They warn him of the statue’s potentially haunted past, and commission him to conduct extensive research in order to fully determine the danger it may pose.

Ominous “black rain” pours down on Jinyang the night the statue is discovered, along with several other textbook auspices, including murders of violent crows scourging the village. These strange occurrences spook the townspeople, who gather for a meeting at the county office, where the statue now sits unmasked, to address the situation.

As more residents unwittingly gaze into the eyes of the Buddha statue, hell begins to break loose – the villagers’ eyes begin to glaze over, before they start to conjure up hallucinations of their traumas, causing them to explode in a homicidal fit of rage. The situation in Jinyang rapidly dominoes and results in a gruesome pile of bodies, as Ki-hoon and his estranged wife Soo-jin (Shin Hyun-bin) race against time to put an end to the catastrophe.

Monstrous’ premise alone is enough to draw viewers in. Yeon’s screenwriting ability and creativity bears fruits in this aspect, playing to the obscurity of the metaphysical to drive home a sombre undercurrent of the detriments of letting your grief and trauma consume you. This allegory is most fundamental to the two protagonists’ character developments, brought to life with the individual performances from Koo and Shin.

There is a salient focus on their characters’ journeys throughout the series; Ki-hoon in his relentless pursuit to stop the Jinyang tragedy, and Soo-jin as she struggles to fight off the curse. Both Koo and Shin clearly pour their souls and immerse themselves into their characters and their nuances, quickly becoming the driving force for the show – though, it is a shame that we don’t get to see the two estranged lovers repair their relationship.

Even Monstrous’ supporting cast deliver sublime performances with the little time (more on that later) they had on the series. Kwak Dong-yeon’s portrayal of a brutish, sadistic ex-convict who uses the situation as an excuse to act on his violent fantasies allowed him to steal every scene he’s in, while Kim Ji-young’s depiction of police chief Han Seok-hee and her thorny relationship with her misguided son (Nam Da-reum) is heartfelt.

However, sitting at a mere six episodes, which each clock in at a little over 30 minutes, Monstrous is quick to spread itself too thin. Its cast of supporting characters, the various subplots and the series’ many perplexities begin on a promising note, however, Monstrous quickly shows how the showrunners struggle to adequately flesh out and wrap up its many narratives.

For an affliction so cataclysmic that it required martial law to be imposed, its brisk resolution feels almost too facile in comparison. Many, if not all of its characters suffer from a substantial lack in development; it slowly becomes a challenge to feel truly invested in Monstrous’ ensemble of characters when there lies a glaring absence of care put into their stories, an aspect to the show that was undoubtly sacrificed to make more space for the overarching plot.

It would be fascinating to see how Yeon and Kang would decide to approach worldbuilding in the Monstrous universe if a sequel were to happen, but the fact remains that its first season jarringly lacks a degree of magnetism that would otherwise encourage viewers to invest themselves in its story and its characters.

Monstrous is available to stream on TVING in South Korea, and VIU in select regions.