Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Star Wars, there is a Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. For every Batman, there is a Wild World of Batwoman. Here at Fandom, we like to go hunting for some offbeat and off-the-wall films and television shows that might just become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is the North Korean monster film Pulgasari. (Last week: Mulholland Drive)
What do you get when you mix a kidnapped director, one of the most evil men in modern history, and Toho? You get the Godzilla rip-off set in a broad metaphor for Communist revolution, Pulgasari.
The story of Pulgasari’s production is in a lot of ways more interesting than the actual film. It begins in 1978, when famed South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok was kidnapped along with his ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee in Hong Kong. This was on the orders of Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung, the Communist dictator of North Korea. Kim Jong-il was a huge movie fan, and loved several genres including Japanese kaiju films. He seems to have convinced his father, to finance the kidnappings to jumpstart North Korea’s propaganda film industry. Shin and Choi were forced to be remarried, and together would make a series of films, most entirely unknown outside North Korea. Pulgasari is the best known of these productions, if only thanks to being a particularly strange take on the kaiju genre.
With life in North Korea being as bizarre as it already is, it is hard to tell what how much of this insane plan was actual work for the betterment of the Communist state. It could be this was just Kim Jong-il tinkering around with a pet project and wasting state resources. What is known is that Shin Sang-ok spent years in prison and “re-education” before he was thought to be fully brainwashed and then allowed to start making his “North Korea period” of filmography, as Wikipedia curiously chooses to call it.
Shin Sang-ok was known before his captivity as “the prince of South Korean film” and created several famed movies. It seems that being imprisoned did not do Shin’s artistic vision well, as Pulgasari is a very standard, plainly shot movie. The most interesting directorial choice is a few dutch angle used early on. (A captive director making a movie for a megalomaniac, using dutch angles? Pulgasari is pretty much the first Battlefield Earth, isn’t it?) Shin is also more than willing to use horrendously awful-looking rear projection shots, either due to lack of care for the finished product or lack of budget. The government were able to supply massive armies of extras to fill out battle scenes, giving Pulgasari the pretentions of being a North Korean Battleship Potemkin. It is hard to say if Shin Sang-ok was able to have any creative influence on Pulgasari at all as he made the movie with a gun literally to his head.
Pulgasari’s story is a mixture of a very weird Godzilla knock-off and an unbelievably boring story of peasant revolution in medieval Korea. The youths of a local village have begun to rebel against the local wicked governor. The governor responds by throwing their uncle, a local blacksmith in prison and starving him. The blacksmith refuses to eat the rice that is given to him just before death, and instead molds it into a tiny lion-lizard monster doll, which he prays to the gods will grant him revenge. When the blacksmith’s daughter bleeds on the doll, it becomes Pulgasari, an immortal monster of Korean legend that eats iron. At first, Pulgasari is a cute little pocket-sized monster, but his voracious appetite for metal turns him into human-sized, then humungous. Pulgasari becomes the hero of the peasant revolution, leading his human allies into battle against bumbling generals and an incompetent king.
Unsurprisingly the best part of Pulgasari is the monster itself. Pulgasari’s special effects were made by none other than Godzilla’s own studio, Toho. In 1985 Toho was just beginning to reboot its kaiju franchises with Godzilla 1985 after a ten-year break, and it was willing to take a dictatorship’s money to create a giant monster. The monster is portrayed within the suit by none other than Kenpachiro Satsuma, who would play the King of the Monsters in nearly a dozen films. Pulgasari fully-grown a large gold bull-like creature that moves fairly well. In a few shots Toho was able to experiment with animatronics to make Pulgasari’s eyes and face move independently of the man inside the suit. He is a fully passable kaiju special effect. However, since all the human characters are either entirely uninteresting saintly villagers or impossibly corrupt nobles, Pulgasari is the only character in the movie worth remembering even the slightest.
The film ends with Pulgasari defeating the wicked monarchs. But he continues to live. His endless appetite for iron threatens Korea’s economy, devouring not just the weapons of war but the farming tools too. The blacksmith’s daughter saves the nation by hiding in a huge iron bell and tricking the monster to eat her, killing herself and the monster together. Was this secretly all a metaphor inserted by Shin Sang-ok for the Kim dynasty betraying the Communist ideals and feasting on their own people’s misery? Or was it Kim Jong-il’s tortured metaphor for capitalism? The weirdest part of Pulgasari is the meta question of how much of this movie was Kim Jong-il’s vision and how much was a desperate cry for help from its director. It is one of the only things that keeps Pulgasari even remotely watchable.
No, I don’t recommend you see this movie for really any reason. It is currently available for free on Youtube, as North Korean copyright claims seem to have been ignored. However, it is awful in a very bland way, like many other second-rate kaiju films. Pulgasari is cute enough as a baby and he’s an interesting giant monster, but nothing else is remotely worth your time. Kaiju and medieval war epics do not really mix together. Let us hope that Kim Jong-un does not exact terrible revenge on Fandom for me disliking his father’s most famous movie.
In 1986 just after Pulgasari’s release, Shin Sang-ok and his wife escaped his North Korean handlers during a Vienna film festival. After his ordeal, Shin and Choi moved to America, where he would work on the 3 Ninjas series under a pseudonym. (If you’ve ever wondered how many degrees of separation there are between Kim Jong-il and 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain star, Hulk Hogan, the answer is two.) Shin Sang-ok would return to South Korea to continue to make movies in his native country before his death. Kim Jong-il, as we know, would lead his country into the nuclear age, just at the expense of millions of lives and a devastated economy. If anybody had any questions about what sort of ruler Kim Jong-il would become, there are plenty of hints in the strange episode of Pulgasari.
And to Kim Jong-il’s credit, Kenpachiro Satsuma is on record saying that Pulgasari is a better kaiju movie than the 1998 American Godzilla film.
Read more in our regular Weird Watch series here.