The movie Pulgasari at first glance is nothing more than a B film that is clearly a rip-off of Godzilla. It is one of those “so bad that it’s good” films that is definitely worthy of being featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000 or RiffTrax. (By the way, if there is anyone from MST3K or RiffTrax reading this, we would really like to see this happen.) What makes Pulgasari especially noteworthy is the story of how it was created in the first place.
Shin Sang-ok (1926-2006) was one of the greatest film producers and directors in South Korea. He produced over 100 films and directed 70 during his storied career and became known as the Orson Welles of South Korea.
In 1978 Shin and his wife were kidnapped by North Korean operatives and brought to the Hermit Kingdom. He attempted to escape but was punished with four years at an all-male prison. There, led to believe that his wife was dead, he survived on a diet of grass, salt, and rice. He was also fed non-stop indoctrination about the North Korean government and its “Great Leader,” Kim Jong-il.
In 1983, without warning or explanation, Shin was released from custody, reunited with his wife, and brought to a reception with the North Korean dictator. Only then was he told why he had been abducted and brought to the country.
Kim, who was known for being a big fan of movies, told Shin that he could make a difference in North Korea’s cinematic culture. “The North’s film-makers are just doing perfunctory work. They don’t have any new ideas,” Kim said. “Their works have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.”
Kim then addressed the small issue of the past four years of imprisonment. He said that he intended to have Shin come to North Korea to discuss how he might help improve North Korean cinema. Due to an embarrassing misunderstanding, Shin ended up being arrested, instead. Kim apologized for taking so long to address the misunderstanding, explaining that he had been rather busy at the office.
After offering his apology for the inconvenience of the past four years, Kim got right to business. He wanted Shin to get to work producing movies that would let the world know that North Korea was not lagging behind in terms of culture.
Shin agreed, but he understood the challenges of his assignment. “What a wretched fate,” Shin remembers thinking. “I hated communism, but I had to pretend to be devoted to it, to escape from this barren republic. It was lunacy.”
What followed was an eight-year period in which Shin directed seven films, with Kim Jong-il acting as executive producer. The capstone of this North Korean period in his career was his final film in that country, Pulgasari. Loosely based on a legend of the 14th-century Koryo monarchy, Pulgasari was created with the help of over 700 employees of Shin’s production company. Included among the creators was a team of monster-movie veterans from Japan, who came only after Kim guaranteed their safety. The film’s namesake clearly owes much to the Godzilla legend, even to the degree of casting Japanese actor Kempachiro Satsuma, the second actor to wear the Godzilla suit, to dress up as Pulgasari.
Pulgasari is born when a jailed blacksmith fashions the lizard-like being out of rice. He declares that he will use the last spark of his creative power to bring the object to life. He manages to do this, and the result is a genuinely-adorable little critter.
Pulgasari is born at a time when all the farmers are starving because of the oppressive rule of the king. (The fact that North Koreans are starving because of the oppressive rule of their leaders was irony lost on Kim Jong-il.) Since Pulgasari eats iron, instead of regular food, he is not hindered by the food shortage and quickly grows to the point where he towers over buildings. He also loses his cute features and grows horns.
The trailer to Pulgasari can be seen here. The entire movie, with English subtitles, can be seen here.
All of the starving and oppression takes place amidst seemingly-endless footage of folk dancing. This is due to the fact that the film was produced under the guidelines of On the Art of the Cinema, a 1973 treatise by Kim Jong-il. Kim stressed that all films should showcase the cultural diversity of North Korea. We can only speculate that the reason Pulgasari does not join in the folk dancing is because of the bulkiness of the monster suit.
Finally, with the assistance of thousands of North Korean soldiers who were drafted as extras, we are treated to the sight of masses of farmers being led by Pulgasari in an assault on the king’s fortress. The king brings out the big guns — literally, the big lion guns. Even these are unequal to the task of defeating Pulgasari, however; he simply swallows the incoming missiles and vomits them back at his attackers. The victory is complete when part of the fortress falls on the evil king, bringing his reign to an end.
This is the point where you would expect to see the closing credits begin to scroll amidst scenes of rejoicing and, of course, folk dancing. Alas, it is not to be. In an ironic reflection of true North Korean life, there really isn’t a happy ending. Pulgasari strangely turns on the victorious farmers and begins eating all of their weapons and tools. This causes him to grow even more.
The people, at this point, are definitely feeling conflicted. They look at Pulgasari as the one who liberated them from tyranny, but they also fear that he will be the end of them. (Again, it should be noted that this irony seems to have flown over the head of Kim Jong-il, whose life story would have needed little adaptation to become the plot for Pulgasari.)
Everyone is saved when the blacksmith’s daughter sacrifices herself by hiding in a big bell. When Pulgasari swallows the girl along with the bell, we learn that a diet of humans doesn’t exactly agree with him. The mammoth creature yells in agony and then explodes. In any other setting, this development would have resulted in the blacksmith’s daughter being freed from the creature’s stomach and living happily ever. This, however, is North Korea, so we learn that the young lady is likewise blown to smithereens.
What are we to make of the underlying message of Pulgasari? Apparently, Kim intended the film to be a warning about entrusting the fate of a nation to a monster who was clearly a capitalist, as evidenced by his insatiable appetite for iron. Others have seen something beyond Kim’s vision, however, and view the film as a metaphor for North Korea’s leaders, who hijacked the “people’s revolution” to serve their own motives.
Whatever the message to be gleaned from Pulgasari, Kim Jong-il was thrilled with the outcome. Having earned Kim’s trust, Shin and his wife were given increasing freedom to travel as good-will ambassadors for North Korean culture. It was while on one such trip to Vienna in 1986 that the couple slipped away from their government handlers and sought political asylum at the United States embassy. They lived under assumed names and with government-assigned protection in Reston, Virginia for two years until it was determined it was safe for them to go public.
Kim Jong-il was less than thrilled by the defection of his top film producer. Consequently, he shelved Pulgasari and every other Shin film. It wasn’t until 1998 that Pulgasari was seen outside of North Korea. The Hermit Kingdom sought to bring international attention to its cultural achievements and hopefully trigger an influx of income to its cash-starved economy.
Amid great fanfare, Pulgasari premiered in South Korea. The film was not exactly a blockbuster. In fact, only about 1,000 people saw it during its time that it played in Seoul.
Kim Jong-il died in 2011. Until his dying day, he was a strong advocate for North Korea’s advancement in the film industry. His treatises on filmmaking continue to guide the nation’s forays into cinema. His views on the subject are even engraved on monuments throughout the country. One such monument, located outside the Revolutionary Museum of the Ministry of Culture on the outskirts of Pyongyang proclaims, “Make more cartoons.”
Perhaps Pulgasari would have been more successful if it had been animated.
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Read more fun facts about North Korea.