Posts Tagged ‘Chang Son Hui’

Hey, kids, kidnapping people is wrong. I feel obliged to make this clear right from the start, just in case it seems like I might be endorsing the practice later on. Wow, this particular piece of nonsense has taken a wacky turn right from the start, you may be thinking. Stay with me, friends; stay with me.

People sometimes very casually talk about ‘crimes against cinema’ – the Daily Mail‘s pet critic said that about Kick-Ass, and was then cyber-bullied about it, for instance – and every once in a while, unfortunate on-set events result in a court case being brought, usually against producers who have managed to kill one or more of their employees. But for a movie to be the product of criminal activities? That’s still quite unusual, I think.

Which brings us to Shin Sang-Ok’s Pulgasari, released in 1985. This was a necessarily narrow release, given the movie was made in North Korea, and represents – to my knowledge at least – the DPRK’s sole entry into the giant monster fantasy genre. (Convenient shorthand for Pulgasari is that it’s ‘the North Korean communist version of Godzilla produced by Kim Jong-il’.) It gets weirder and weirder, doesn’t it? And we’re not even onto the synopsis.


To be honest, the story-behind-the-story is probably more gripping: in 1978 the director and his wife (a noted actress) were literally kidnapped by members of North Korean intelligence, whisked off to Pyongyang, and forced to make propaganda movies by the film-loving ‘dear leader’, not that he was actually in charge at the time. This was part of a systematic scheme by the North Koreans to forcibly recruit talented artists to their cause, although if Pulgasari is a typical representative of this program’s results, I would say the DPRK really needn’t have bothered.

The story unfolds in medieval Korea where honest, hard-working farmers suffer under the oppressive rule of their cruel masters. (You can perhaps already see where this is going.) Bandits are threatening the entrenched system of control and so the local governor recruits the beloved blacksmith (Gwon Ri) from a small village to make more weapons for him to fight them, even though this means melting down all the farming tools people need to survive. He refuses and goes on hunger-strike, and when his horrified family throw rice into his cell, all he does is mould it into the shape of a tiny monster and pray that his sacrifice, at the end of a life of virtue, will not go unnoticed by the gods.

Well, anyway, the blacksmith snuffs it and sortly afterwards the tiny monster, nicknamed Pulgasari after a mythical Korean beast, accidentally has a drop of blood splashed on it by his grieving daughter, Ami (Chang Son Hui). Lo and behold, Pulgasari comes to life. He may be small but he has a hearty appetite – even if he is a fussy eater. Yes, Pulgasari only eats metal, starting off with the contents of his mistress’ sewing box, then moving on to the bolts on the nearest door, and so on.

Meanwhile, the oppression of the decent farmers continues, with Ami’s cousin, the magnificently-mulleted rebel leader Inde (Ham Gi Sop), due for the chop. As luck would have it, however, Inde is saved when Pulgasari pops up in the nick of time and eats the executioner’s sword. A full-scale uprising results, with the evil king dispatching his top general to put down the farmers once and for all. But can he deal with the rapidly-growing monster that marches with them?

As you may have been able to gather, Pulgasari is a fairly weird movie, even by the standards of the kaiju genre (which it surely qualifies for, even if it isn’t strictly Japanese). The period setting, if nothing else, marks it out as being a bit different. To be honest, even without the monster, this wouldn’t really work as a stirring historical epic as the production values are just too low: I know we all keep reading in the news about how backward North Korea is and how low the quality of life has dropped, but watching Pulgasari you do get a real sense of this. It looks like an episode of Monkey, although the special effects probably aren’t as accomplished, and – it’s hard to say why – has more the feel of something made in the late 1960s than a product of what was, in the west, the Reagan-Thatcher era.

Then again, we’re dealing with a film which is the product of a totally different ethos. Actually, describing Pulgasari as ‘the North Korean Godzilla‘ is simultaneously spot-on accurate and rather misleading: because the monster effects which are central to proceedings were not the work of North Koreans alone, but made with the participation of the effects guys from Toho in Japan (this movie is roughly contemporaneous with The Return of Godzilla, which is a bit more technically accomplished). The guy in the Pulgasari suit is Ken Satsuma, a long-time and distinguished Godzilla suit actor, so the two monsters are, to say the least, brothers under the skin. (Pulgasari does look rather like Godzilla with all his dorsal plates removed and bull’s horns added.)

Now, you may be thinking that Pulgasari is bound to turn out to be a crushingly simplistic and obvious piece of old-fashioned communist propaganda. To some extent this is true, for all the human characters are there solely to serve a story of united workers overthrowing evil bosses, and most of the non-monster scenes have a rather laborious quality, as though the film is going slightly slowly just to ensure we understand the message. But as far as the central metaphor is concerned, Pulgasari is slightly more oblique.

The key thing is that Pulgasari himself is not the bad guy, the king is: the monster is sympathetic virtually throughout. Only at the very end of the film does it become apparent that his ever-increasing appetite for metal is bound to become a source of conflict and that the world will be a better place without him. It’s very hard not to draw the conclusion that the permanently-hungry, ever-growing beast is a metaphor for consumerism. But you would expect the DPRK government to be unequivocally down on that, whereas the movie implies it has a central role to play in creating a fairer society. The trick is to know when to get rid of your monster, apparently. It’s an unexpectedly subtle element of a film which isn’t really understated in any other respect, and sets up one of the most downbeat conclusions to any kaiju movie.

Shin Sang-Ok’s own tale had a slightly happier ending, as he and his wife were able to give their security detail the slip and escape to Austria the following year, and I believe the director has since disowned Pulgasari, as you would in the circumstances. That said, it’s not the hilariously bad piece of agitprop you might be expecting, nor even particularly poor as kaiju movies go. It’s just a bit too worthy and slow to be really interesting as anything but a historical curiosity.


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