Wednesday, June 22, 2016


My wife is a North Korea aficionado, and she made sure to alert me to the existence of the film "Pulgasari" after reading about it in "A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power". I obtained a DVD copy of the film and gave it to her for our anniversary this year, because nothing bespeaks commitment like the gift of a North Korean kaiju film made by a hostage director, and we watched it soon thereafter as part of her birthday celebration. In terms of being pretty much the puzzling artifact we expected, it did not disappoint.

While the behind-the-scenes tale is a somewhat long and convoluted story, the basics are that Kim Jong-Il fancied himself a cineaste, and wanted to breathe new life into the North Korean film industry. He decided that the way to achieve this goal was to kidnap eminent South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and movie star Choi Eun-Hee, and to compel them to make cinematic magic for him. "Pulgasari" became the eventual odd result.

In the film, which I assume takes place in a long-ago realm roughly equivalent to today's Korean peninsula in terms of geography, a group of peasant farmers contrives to create a monster to help them conquer a hostile feudal state. At least this one guy creates the monster as a homunculus of sorts, and at first it's really small and kind of resembles Godzooky or Chewbacca's son Lumpy from the Star Wars Holiday Special, and oh God I didn't want to remember that part. Anyway, eventually the creature (the titular Pulgasari) grows to a properly implausible kaiju size and develops a penchant for eating metal, at which time it's able to help the farmers win battles kind of like Dr. Manhattan does for the U.S. Army in "Watchmen".

Eventually the peasants overthrow the feudal dudes, and while all's good on that front, Pulgasari continues to demand more and more metal to eat. Eventually the people Pulgasari fought for realize that they have, as it were, created a monster, and that they must destroy him to survive. Perhaps this is a metaphor for Marxism's triumph over a self-consuming capitalism. Or perhaps the lesson is simply that if you find yourself taking care of Godzooky, you should stomp him to death when you have the chance, because otherwise you will be sorry.

Here I'll take a moment to say that the miniature work in this film is pretty good. If I saw some footage of the Pulgasari character (clearly portrayed by a human in a suit) demolishing some of the miniature sets out of context, I'd assume this was a Toho film of some sort. So there's that.

IMDB says the film was "not shown outside of North Korea or South Korea for over a decade after its release in 1985", and that "in the early 1990's, the North Koreans attempted to market this propaganda film to foreign countries with no success. Finally in 1998 it got its first international viewing in Japan where it gained a small cult following."

So there you have it. Pulgasari: a film that's worth watching just so you can say you did.

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