The origins to this North Korean Godzilla riff / rip-off is far more interesting than the film, but knowing its history makes Pulgasari a much ‘richer’ experience than expected.
Director Sang-ok Shin was a busy, top director in South Korea during the sixties, and in 1978 he travelled to Hong Kong to investigate the weird situation where ex-wife / popular actress Choi Eun-hee had been kidnapped. This proved to be true, and Shin was himself snatched and taken to his wife – in North Korea, under the orders of the country’s nutbar leader Kim Jong-il, to help start / improve the country’s film industry.
Between 1978-1983, Shin attempted to escape, was imprisoned, and later re-married his wife as ‘suggested by’ the Jong-il. Between 1983-1986 Shin reportedly directed seven films, although the IMDB only lists 3 – perhaps because these were the only ones to have been released outside of North Korea: Pulgasari (1985), Sogum (1985) and Love, Love, My Love (1985), with the latter two starring Eun-hee.
During the 1986 Vienna Film Festival, Shin and Eun-hee escaped, and eventually fled to safety in the U.S., and the couple eventually returned to South Korea, where that had to defend themselves against accusations their abduction was fake.
Each of Shin’s northern films were ‘executive produced’ by Jong-il, and Pulgasari remained unavailable outside of North Korea until the nineties, when it was screened in South Korea and Japan.
Pulgasari’s connection to Japan went beyond being a Godzilla rip-off: the rubber-suited monster was reportedly designed by Japanese artists, and the actor inside the suit also played Godzilla in the post-1985 installments.
Even with that unique connection – which is also a bit ironic, given North Korean agents were kidnapping Japanese locals to help ‘educate’ secret agents for infiltration during the late seventies and early eighties (as documented in the deeply disturbing doc Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story [M]) – Pulgasari isn’t very good, and part of that may be attributed to Shin’s direction which seemed to mandate a frenetic editing style that severely compressed the time period of the story.
Not that more natural flowing scenes would’ve helped, but length would’ve aided in maintaining some temporal continuity, because at it stands, Pulgasari is basically a comic book movie with ideological content that’s only tangible when one knows of its weird history.
Based on an ancient legend, Pulgasari is a revenge deity a farmer brings to life when he’s arrested and starved to death by a wealthy King. The royal despot is determined to snatch every piece of metal from villagers to create arms for his soldiers, and defend the regular augmentation of his treasure chest against rebellious scruffigans.
Like Godzilla, Pulgasari is a lizard-like creature, but his birth is quite different: he’s initially molded from rice by a dying, imprisoned father who refused to take the snatched metal tools from his fellow and make arms for the King. His daughter Ami later acquires the detailed green figure (apparently consistent compression from firm hands can yield fine folk art) and brings it to life when she cuts her finger and blood drips onto its head.
As the legend goes, the deity remains loyal to the blood-giver, but it has an insatiable appetite for metal, and each mouthful of pewter, iron, brass, whatever, causes it to grow to Godzilla-size. The villagers eventually fend off the King’s soldiers due to Pulgasari’s brute force, and his ability to literally eat their armaments, sending the King into a tizzy.
A battle is eventually waged, Pulgasari is tricked into a giant cage and burned alive, but the creature survives to mete out more rage, but the villagers soon realize their savior is still hungry, and requires the villagers’ metal – bringing the poor folks back to where they started with the greedy King. (Get the poetry? Get the Message? Feel the irony?)
Pulgasari just doesn’t get it (his brain’s probably the size of a tangerine), and while he eventually smites the power of the evil King by destroying his castle and all its ornate valuables, he must be stopped. Only Ami can end the villagers’ imminent misery, so she sacrifices herself in a metal bell (the film’s most dramatically potent moment), and causes the giant lizard to transform into rock and explode. Peace once again reigns in the village, and everyone has learned capitalist greed is bad. Very, very bad.
END OF SPOILERS
The performances are generic caricatures of Poor Villagers, Evil Soldiers, Vile Kings, and loyal Generals, but the real star is the Japanese actor who really gets into lizard deity and transcends the limitations of his rubber suit with a strong physical performance. Some of the miniatures – such as the castle - are well-done, but the optical effects are weak, including grainy rear-projection shots & brief laser-like optical effects that probably cost as much as a North Korean village’s food budget for six months.
Sound effects border on basic, although Shin’s editors seemed to favor terrible echo-processed clangs that sound more like cheap laser blasts from a Roger Corman film than clashing metal for the sword fights. Scenes are edited for speed, and it becomes impossible to map out the time span of Pulgasari’s own lifespan. (In one segment, the King’s general orders a giant hole to be dug, and the deed is done in a matter of hours, perfectly timed for Pulgasari’s arrival, bumble, and tumble.)
The costumes may reflect the bright pastel shades favoured by official North Korean formal wear, but it’s kind of tough to swallow when so many actors are wearing Thick Beard #12, Long Hair #3 and 18, and Ponytail #6 – all terribly ill-fitting hair pieces. The most grating element – besides the incessant outcries of “Pulgasaria! Pulgasaria!” from Ami’s little bro – is the score which seems to consist of wholly inappropriate, badly written synth cues, and 2-3 stock orchestral cues.
The cinematography is frenetic, and while Shin’s eye seemed to prefer multiple action covered in fast-zooming single takes, there’s no sense of scope: masses of people appear in semi-elaborate battle scenes, but most of the zoom-happy shots last for a few seconds, and were rarely framed to show off any inherent production value. The editing at least maintains brisk action sequences, but bad costumes, swords, hairpieces, and paper mache boulders just don’t cut it.
If there’s any genuine political ideology at play, it’s not so overt as one would think. ‘Greed is bad, greed for material possessions is bad,’ but that’s hardly a novel set of messages. More interesting is the way the villages cry and adore Pulgasari like North Korea’s then-leader, Kim Il-sung; through actions, the reptilian savior discreetly convinces the villagers there’s nobility in poverty and life on the farm, but him becoming an unexpected villain could be read as a subversive comment by the actual filmmakers, telling audiences Pulgasari / North Korea’s despotic leader is just a greedy charlatan preaching an ideal that runs contrary to natural human needs for societal peace and wealth. As Ami becomes the poison pill which destroys the new despot, North Koreans must create a similar device to end their own suffering.
The film’s final coda seemed to have been doodled post-haste, however: after the stone lizard explodes into a million pieces, a miniature Pulgasari wobbles from the misty mess back into a mountain cave, and the film’s last shot is Ami, inexplicably lying un-crushed on a pile of rocks. She’s apparently dead, but she’s not in Heaven, and not looking like the masticated cadaver she ought to be, so what’s up? And how is was Pulgasari able to reassemble himself after being blown to itty-bitty rocky bits? Shouldn’t he at least be a pile of soggy rice?
There is violence in Pulgasari, but the consequences are implied; gore is literally limited to small splotches of Blood Goo #12, but there is one scene that really stands out for its sickening irony. After successfully fending off the King’s goons, follow-up scenes show a real dead horse being pulled apart (it’s a quick shot), and Shin has the camera pull away to reveal the group eating what’s available in bulk: bark. Ami has a scraper which she shaves off the fibrous matter that’s being eaten by fellow villagers, and later (presumably) cooked in a kind of stew. It wasn’t long ago that North Korea’s poor were starving due to a terrible harvest, and new reports mentioned the consumption of bark, so the sequence is disturbing for dramatizing a reality that hit 10 years later during a grievous famine, while the country’s self-appointed King, Kim Jong-il, was untouched by his country’s misery.
Pulgasari was reportedly the most expensive North Korean film at the time (rather hard to fathom based on the meh nature of the final product), and has been available on VHS and DVD in Asia, but there are assorted subtitled versions floating around in YouTube.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan