How does prejudice turn into acceptance? How does a visionary veer away from the troubling decisions of the past? And what could make a woman sacrifice her own desires to accomplish what’s best for those who despise her?
Korean-American animator and former Blue Sky Studios artist, Gene Kim, explores these questions—at once universal and personal—in One Last Monster, a 2019 short film taking place in a re-envisioning of ancient Korea as a fantasy, sci-fi landscape. The world of Adin has been decimated by extraterrestrial invasions, the most recent of which led to the death of the emperor. However, he left behind two keys to ending the destruction: a consuming and threatening fire, and the empress, Eura, whose desire to honor her deceased husband and save her people is matched only by her appetite.
When an invader appears, Eura prepares to use the flame of unknown origin and ability against it, but comes to find that this monster isn’t the same as aliens in the past—instead, Didas arrives with a different and critical mission in mind.
Lovingly animated by Kim and Elmer Barcenes, One Last Monster combines styles reflective of ancient Korean art and modern animation, bringing science fiction elements to a fantasy / historical setting. The divide is thoroughly ingrained into the short film, which transitions from simple but lovely landscapes to breathtaking frames of galaxies. The latter scenes, sometimes complete with a powerful sense of motion, are particularly notable, as is a short transition showing Didas running alongside the enchanting giant turtles of Kim’s world.
The heart of the story, however, is with Eura and Didas, two compassionate but troubled, conflicted, and uneven creatures. A tension is palpable throughout the film’s 23-minute runtime centered on the foibles of these two characters, who even in their imperfection and the very real, even likely possibility that they’ll make destructive choices, represent the best of humanity (a ruminative theme considering the use of monsters in this work) in a world that is full of fear and prejudice.
It’s a feat to make an unusual-looking film with epic proportions small and personal, and to express such themes as it does without coming across as condescending, but Kim is able to do both effectively. It helps, too, to have Mike Meth (Didas) and Martha Harms (Eura) voicing the leads, particularly the latter, whose performance helps root the film and perhaps prevent it from drifting toward becoming a high-minded, colder piece.
Thankfully, that it is not. Accessible, creative, and clever, One Last Monster is a thoughtful and wondrous short film. Kim is releasing a remastered version this summer—serendipitous, perhaps, as there may be no better time for viewers to watch and consider the costs of being a monster, and the sacrifice necessary to be truly human.