There’s a fascinating-looking book I’ve been meaning to read about the true life story of a couple who were effectively held hostage by now-deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and forced to make big budget propaganda films at his whim (A Kim Jong-il Production:The Extradordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power). South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife/actress Choi Eun-hee worked against their will to create North Korean versions of films Kim Jong-il, a huge movie buff, was obsessed with, except with a government-positive message at their center. This concept is already difficult enough to wrap my mind around in the abstract, but it’s even harder to reconcile with the reality of the one Shin Sang-ok movie I’ve seen from the era, the 1985 Godzilla knockoff Pulgasari.
Even without its exceedingly surreal context as a document of unlawful imprisonment under Kim Jong-il’s thumb, Pulgasari would still be highly recommendable as a slice of over-the-top creature feature cinema. I’m far from an expert in the hallmarks of kaiju cinema, but the film felt wholly unique to me, an odd glimpse into the way the genre can lend itself to wide variety of metaphors the same way zombies, vampires, and X-Men have in American media over the years. The titular monster ranges from cute to terrifying, from friend to enemy over the course of the film, which is a lot more nuanced than what I’m used to from my kaiju. Most of all, though, Pulgasari is fascinating in its self-conflicting nature as both a brutal tale of political unrest and a cheap thrills indulgence in goofy monster movie camp. The film’s bewildering backstory aside, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.
Just like how the size of its titular kaiju grows exponentially throughout its runtime, the budget of Pulgasari surprisingly expands as the plot trudges along. Beginning with an isolated village not unlike the bare bones sets of Yokai Monsters: Spooky Warfare, Pulgasari first appears to be a dirt cheap production. Its story is consistently engaging even through these humble beginnings, however. A small farming community on the brink of starvation due to a bad harvest & governmental over-taxing sees many of its young men taking up arms among mountainside bandits to raid government storehouses for survival. The government does not respond well to this transgression. The village is seized, its farm equipment melted down in order to forge military weapons & all suspected mountain bandits cruelly jailed. The oldest, widest member of the village prays with his dying breath for the gods to save the human race from government cruelty & the gods send Pulgasari. The demonic savior first appears as a miniature threat, but eventually balloons monstrously large, as does the film’s budget. Huge, large scale battles loaded with expensive special effects & tons of extras take over what initially feels like a limited scope fairy tale and ultimately blooms into a full-blown epic.
Let’s take a minute to discuss the awesomeness of Pulgasari himself. When he’s first brought to life through dying prayers & blood magic, he’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and is so ridiculously cute. Pulgasari’s costume is a little more flexible than Godzilla’s, so when he moves around he looks like a dancing toddler in a lizard’s costume & his miniature set includes the oversized props of films like Attack of the Puppet People. He grows from there by eating iron, taking bites directly out of government weapons, establishing himself as a hero of the people despite his demonic visage. Pulgasari grows large & terrifying, eventually looking like a cross between a lizard & a bull, and proves to be impervious to all weaponry. The visual charm of the monster wears of by the time he’s mountain-size and a scene where the government attempts to set him on fire stands as one of the most hellish, metal images I can remember seeing on film in a good while. Eventually, Pulgasari grows too large for his own good, unfortunately, and starts to strain the people he once protected’s limited resources with his unquenchable thirst for iron.
You might think that the way Shin Sang-ok made this film subversive was by portraying an evil, totalitarian government that drained the life out of its people, but that idea actually belonged to Kim Jong-il. The dictator saw that message as a warning of the dangers of capitalism when it goes unchecked. Okay. Shin Sang-ok, instead, stabbed at his captor’s legacy by likening him to Pulgasari, a hero to the people that would eventually betray them by growing too large & too greedy. Either way you read the film, it’s fascinating that that it was ever made under North Korean watch & I’m now all the more curious to read A Kim Jong-il Production as soon as I get the chance. Pulgasari doesn’t need that context to stand as a remarkable work, however. If you went into the film blind there’d still be plenty of spectacle & clashing tones to stick with you in a way more generic, non-Japanese kaiju novelties wouldn’t. This is not the by-the-numbers vagueness of Reptilicus. It’s something much more essential & idiosyncratic.