(1985) Directed by Sang-ok Shin; Written by: Se Ryun Kim; Starring: Son Hui Chang, Ham Gi Sop, Jong-uk Ri, Gwon Ri, and Yong-hok Pak; Available on DVD and YouTube
“They’re just an army of farmers. They have no strength. Give them no leeway and attack at once.” – General Fuan (Riyonun Ri)
There are few films as notorious as the North Korean giant monster movie Pulgasari, produced by none other than Kim Jong-il. The behind-the-scenes story reads like a work of fiction, with events more fantastic than anything depicted on screen. In the hopes of improving his country’s floundering film industry, Jong-il ordered the kidnapping of South Korean director Sang-ok Shin along with his ex-wife. After several years of imprisonment, Sang-ok was appointed the head of his own film company, and given pseudo-V.I.P. status (under the watchful eye of North Korean officials). Before eventually fleeing the country, he made a handful of films, including Pulgasari. In addition to utilizing substantial domestic resources for Pulgasari, Jong-il flew in a Japanese effects crew under false pretenses, including monster suit actor Kenpachirô Satsuma (the second individual to wear the Godzilla suit). The baffling events conjure memories of the old TV commercial tagline, “But wait, there’s more!” For anyone looking for a more detailed account, a good starting point is the 2003 Guardian article, “Kidnappedby Kim Jong-il: The Man Who Directed the Socialist Godzilla,” by John Gorenfeld.
The basic story reportedly stems from a Korean folktale* but appears to share some similarities with the Japanese Daimajin movies and, of course, Godzilla. Set in 14th-century Korea, a community of poor farmers are harassed, bullied and demeaned by the king’s soldiers, forced to toil for their benefit. In a final effort of desperation, an imprisoned blacksmith creates a figure out of rice (which embodies his soul). His daughter’s blood accidentally touches the creation, bringing it to life. Soon, the beleaguered villagers discover the wee beast has a taste for iron. Before you can say “dear leader,” little Pulgasari quickly grows to gargantuan proportions, providing the might behind the farmers’ revolt against the tyrannical king.
* Fun Fact: The first cinematic interpretation was reportedly the South Korean film, Bulgasari (1962), which is now presumed lost.
Famous Last Words
The title creature, which resembles a cross between Godzilla and a bull, starts out as a pudgy little guy, who resembles Minya if you squint (or if you heard a second-hand description of the creature from someone with glaucoma). We’re treated to some Son of Godzilla-esque (un-intentionally comic?) moments as he stumbles around like a drunken sailor. As Pulgasari grows, his appetite for iron increases. Even after he’s defeated the king’s army (Sorry/not sorry about the spoiler), his hunger for metal doesn’t ebb. Eventually, his addiction deprives the farmers of their means of support (hoes, rakes, etc…), turning the film into a sort of kaiju version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (which was published the same year this movie was released. Coincidence or not?).
Despite Pulgasari’s uneven, frequently slipshod nature, it’s easy to see it was a large-scale production. The royal palace miniatures are decent enough, and it’s impressive to see crowd scenes that seemingly included thousands (supplied, courtesy of the North Korean army). Overall, Pulgasari is a mixed bag. One of the most beguiling aspects of the film is its theme of villagers overcoming adversity, after being ground under the heel of oppression by a ruthless, narcissistic dictator. Perhaps it was the period setting or fantasy elements (depicting a mythical time), but somehow the irony was lost on Kim Jong-il, who viewed the film as a masterpiece and a source of pride. It also inadvertently casts the heroes of the story in a bad light, with the farmers’ fighting prowess and bravery hinges entirely on Pulgasari’s considerable fortitude. Enjoyment of this movie requires some cognitive dissonance on the part of the viewer, overlooking the behind-the-scenes drama, its dubious messages, and melodramatic (bordering on histrionic) performances. On the other hand, it works fine as (dare I say) silly escapist fare. It’s a curiosity piece, sure to be pondered and debated for generations to come.
* Fun Fact: If you don’t have enough Pulgasari in your life, look for the 1996 remake, The Legend Of Galgameth.
Sources: “Kidnapped by Kim Jong-il: The Man Who Directed theSocialist Godzilla,” by John Gorenfeld; “How Kim Jong Il Kidnapped a Director, Made a Godzilla Knockoff, and Created aCult Hit,” by Nick Romano