Directors: Shin Sang-ok & Chong Gon Jo
Country: North Korea
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was, famously, an avid film buff. His personal collection of movies was vast, and his favourites included the Rambo and James Bond films. He adored the cinematic traditions of the US and Britain in private, even while publicly railing against those countries on the world stage. By the 1980s, Kim had become determined to develop a film industry in North Korea that would rival the output of the capitalist superpowers, but there was a problem. The Kim regime’s brutal oppression and strict censorship made it difficult for artistic expression to flourish, and North Korean cinema became known for melodramatic, shoddily made propaganda pieces which simply could not compete with Hollywood. Kim poured more and more money into the endeavour, but all the financial resources of the state could not make up for a lack of talent and expertise.
It’s from this context that the North Korean giant monster epic Pulgasari was made – and the tale of the film’s production is almost more unbelievable than the film itself. In 1978, Kim Jong-il orchestrated the kidnapping of famous South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, the actress Choi Eun-hee. The couple were imprisoned in the north for eight years, and forced to produce films for the North Korean film industry.
Pulgasari is the final film that Shin directed for Kim Jong-il, before he and Choi escaped captivity. It has been widely derided by Western critics as both a shoddy Godzilla ripoff, and heavy-handed propaganda from the Kim dynasty. Nonetheless, Pulgasari the “Commie-Kaiju Titan” has amassed a considerable cult following outside of North Korea.
The film takes place in medieval Korea, where an evil king tries to stamp out a peasant revolt. An old blacksmith, wasting away in a prison cell, moulds a small figure out of rice and prays for it to defend his people from oppression. With his dying breath he gives the figure to his son and daughter, and when a drop of the daughter’s blood falls upon it, the figure comes to life.
The tiny Pulgasari is somewhat goofy, and grows larger by eating metal. Sewing needles at first, then shovel heads and cooking pots, and eventually entire cannons once he has reached the size of a modern skyscraper. With the help of Pulgasari, the peasants are able to rise up and overthrow the corrupt monarchy – but they soon learn that such a creature cannot remain under control forever. The monster’s appetite for iron is never-ending, forming a (somewhat baffling and contradictory) warning for North Korean audiences against the dangers of greed and individual wealth.
The villain of the piece, the tyrannical king, is also a baffling character. His mannerisms and behaviours bear a striking resemblance to Kim Jong-il, who is credited as the film’s executive producer. Are the similarities unintentional, or a subtle act of rebellion on the part of the abducted director Shin?
Obviously, Pulgasari draws most of its inspiration from the Japanese Godzilla franchise. Specifically, Pulgasari is inspired by the Shōwa-era Godzilla films of the 1960s. Situated between the post-Hiroshima terror of the 1954 original Gojira, and the series’ return to its dark, gritty roots in the ’70s, Shōwa Godzilla was a lighthearted, kid-friendly creature who regularly saved humanity from war and destruction. Likewise, Pulgasari is a benign, even lovable character for most of the film. However, the high production values also reminded me of my entry for Burma, Never Shall We Be Enslaved – particularly through the lavish costumes, grand historical sets, and huge battle sequences with hundreds of extras.
Ignoring the horrific circumstances under which it was made, and its ties to one of the most oppressive governments in recent history, Pulgasari stands on its own as an entertaining film – in my view, much more so than many in the West have given it credit for. In terms of special effects and visual flair, it rivals some of the Godzilla films from around the same time. Its performances are cheesy and melodramatic, but as good as could be hoped for in a film of its time and genre. With a talented director, albeit a coerced one, and the resources of an entire country being desperately funneled into its production, Pulgasari manages to create some scenes of true spectacle and even some moderately successful human drama.