Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pulgasari (1985)

Making a feature film is a long and grueling process. With the massive egos, long hours, stuffy corporate suits, sudden emergencies, and vast quantities of sweat and treasure involved, it is no surprise that the twisted tale of a movie's production can be a far more entertaining yarn than its final product.

This is not to say that the one-of-a-kind North Korean kaiju film, Pulgasari, is not a fascinating curiosity when stripped of context, but that the story of how the late Shin Sang-ok, a man once referred to as the Orson Welles of Korean cinema, ended up making a large scale Godzilla rip-off as a prisoner of the unhinged despot and current totalitarian troublemaker, Kim Jong-il. But more about that in a bit.
The movie itself tells the story of a impoverished 14th Century village fighting a small scale guerrilla war against a ruthless military force. The soldiers, decked out in bright colors and paper hats, attempt to coerce the local blacksmith into producing weapons for them, but he claims to be out of iron. Actually, he is secretly funneling weapons to the guerrillas, only to be swiftly found out, imprisoned, then slowly starved to death.

His attractive daughter and shrill, inexplicably long haired son (Why does every Kaiju film need an annoying, squeaky voiced, effeminate child?) attempt to give him some rice, but can only toss a handful through the bars. Instead of eating it like a sane starving person, gramps molds his unappetizing mound of dirt and rice into a little action figure. With his last ounce of strength, he pleads to the gods for help. They respond by sending a glowing blue sperm (or something) into the rice doll.
After expiring, the blacksmith's personal effects, along with the magic rice doll are given to his children. When the daughter, Ami, pricks her finger while sewing, a drop of stray blood combines with the glowing blue sperm magic to imbue the doll with life. The result: Katamari Pulgasari, a friendly little demon who dramatically increases his size by eating ferrous minerals. In a civilization ruled by an iron fist (get it?), and where iron farming tools can mean the difference between starvation and survival, a metal munching monster can only lead to hilarity and wackiness.
Pulgasari's first order of business: get his snack on. In a fortuitous turn of events, one of the guerrilla heroes is about to be executed with a delicious steel scimitar. He takes a healthy chunk out of the blade a split second before it reaches neck, then scares off the soldiers with his irritating tendency to eat any weapon swung at it. Once they retreat, he shifts his attention to the villagers' metal pots and hoes. (Quickly YouTube, someone make a Pulgasari rap video.) This destruction of property swiftly robs him of the village's goodwill, and the only reason he doesn't get chased out of town with torches and pitchforks is that he would just eat the forks... also the heroes convince the other farmers that he can be used as a weapon to fight the unjust warlords.
With a clumsy fat guy in a rubber suit Pulgasari leading the charge, the "farmer's army" starts a revolution. The local garrison is quickly overrun as Pulgy devours their armaments and the farmers attack with giant charcol briquettes.

Meanwhile, various wild facial hair and goofy hat enthusiasts fret about the rapidly expanding threat and the movie breaks down into two types of scenes that alternate for the duration of runtime: epic battles and wacky schemes.

As this was a North Korean production, their single greatest resource is sheer manpower. Some of the marching and battle sequences are striking in their massive scope. After all, if you were a NK soldier, dressing in cheesy period garb and swinging cardboard swords must have been a pleasant change of pace from patrolling the DMZ or slowly starving to death. Shin Sang-ok takes full advantage of his cast of thousands, with slow pans and zooms across vast fields of extras, often with a goofy looking rear projection of Pulgasari stomping around in the background.
The other scene that repeats throughout the middle reels is the villians' Wile E. Coyote style attempts to trap or harm Pulgasari. First they kidnap his special lady and threaten to kill her if he doesn't climb into a big cage for some wicker man action. This only results in a bright red Pulgasari who boils most of the army to death by jumping into the lake after them.Next they hire a witch to perform an exorcism on the beast. I'm not sure if the translation is correct, as the 'exorcism' mainly just knocks him unconscious so he can be buried in a giant pit of boulders. Despite that, it's the most successful anti-Pulgasari measure, allowing the soldiers to route the farmers in another battle. Too bad for them, Ami sneaks into the boulder pit and provides him with some more blood.

During the final battle, the villains pull out all the stops. They launch medieval rockets (that look suspiciously like long range missiles) managing to wound the big P in one of his ginormous eyeballs. There is even talk of a superweapon that can reduce even mountains to dust (is the UN paying attention here?), but it turns out to just be a couple of really large, fancy cannons. When fired, Pulgasari just eats the fiery projectiles and shoots them back.
The evil general, who was getting drunk to celebrate the successful exorcism, is stomped on. Lots of soldiers get smooshed and exploded, and the corrupt king, after attempting to hide by wrapping himself up in a curtain (I tried that when a hobo snuck into my house one night; doesn't work.) gets smashed with a column.The revolution is successful, but the farmers are robbed of a happy ending, as they now have to choose between Pulgasari starving to death or eating all the farming tools that they started the whole revolution to protect in the first place. Ami eventually finds the solution by hiding in a large temple bell and letting Pulgasari eat her. For some reason, this causes the monster to A. turn to stone, B. explode a lot, C. turn back into tiny Pulgasari, D. turn back into a magic blue sperm that flies into Ami's corpse.... possibly reanimating her, but definitely making her cry.

I have not seen a great many kaiju films in my day, (Gamera episodes of MST3K and some Godzilla films are about it) but they all tend to fall into the same pattern: a desperate struggle for the audiences attention during the "people parts" followed by totally rockin' but unsatisfyingly brief monster fights. (Godzilla: Final Wars, I'm looking in your inexplicably Matrix ripping-off direction.) Pulgasari is sadly no different; it goes a solid twenty minutes without even mentioning the P-word during the first act, and that is after they create him. Things pick up at about the halfway mark when the movie finally gives up on making us give a flying fuck about any individual character (besides the monster, of course) and makes good on its implicit promise to stomp a lot of people.
As for ol' Pulgasari himself, he makes for an adequate giant rubber monster mascot for a tiny, backward, neo-Stalinist heck-hole. His big goofy eyes (quite expressive head-puppet closeups) remind us that he is a monster of the people, stomping and smashing only the corrupt and oppresive. Unlike his decadent, capitalist counterparts, Pulgi lacks radioactive fire breath, rocket legs, a turtle shell, or any power moves, but he compensates with the metal eating gimmick (apparently from Korean folklore), spunk, determination, and nigh-invulnerability. Pulgasari is effective, not flashy, and he delights in redirecting his enemies' fancy attacks back in their tiny, screaming faces.
When the almighty celluloid gods return to Earth to judge filmmakers, Nick Cassavetes won't be able to excuse The Notebook by claiming that Kim Jong-il would have killed him if he hadn't made it. The director of Pulgasari, despite his movie being a billion times less painful than even the trailer for the above mentioned, can make this excuse. He could have made a movie so terrible that it caused fetuses to abort themselves rather than have to be born into the same world as it, and no one could blame him. That's a blank check for awful cinema, but in a strange twist of fate, Pulgasari isn't that bad. Drink and/or smoke drugs heavily in the languid first act, and you should be all set for the cheesy temple smashing action to come.Before Shin Sang-ok found himself making this surprisingly adequate monster movie, he was arguably the most beloved and prolific filmmaker in South Korea. Between 1952 and 1976, he directed 67 feature films, approximately none of which have any sort of western distribution that I know of. (The best I can find is a region 3 box set. Criterion Collection, why have you forsaken me?) Despite practically being synonymous with Korean cinema, Shin's career had begun to stall by the late '70s. It was a rough patch for the country's cinema in general, and he frequently ran afowl of powerful government censors, eventually resulting in the forced shuttering of his studio.

Note: I have pieced together this story from Wikipedia, obituaries, and various other online sources. Details are sketchy at best, so I would refrain from citing me in any serious research you may be doing. That's a good rule to follow in general, but I still want to make it clear that this is all little more than educated hearsay.

In 1978, Mr. Sang-ok's career had been all but stifled by the repressive South Korean government (and they were the good guys, yeesh) and his estranged ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee, mysteriously disappered while in Hong Kong. Leaving the relative safety of Seoul to investigate, Shin's quest was rewarded with a sudden bag over the head and a one way ticket to Pyongyang. Now trapped in the even more oppressive North, the pair found themselves face with then dictator-in-training Kim John-il, who revealed that the whole ordeal had been a setup for him to kidnap the respected director. Aside from the five long years in prison given to Shin as punishment for an escape attempt, they were given comfortable, even lavish boarding, as well as a sizable Austrian bank account to fund the movies that they would make for the regime. Movies that Shin would have surprising creative control over. Hell, the liliputian tyrant even convinced the ex-lovers to get remarried.When it came time to make a giant monster movie, Kim spared no expense. Thousands of soldiers were given spears and period garb for the battle sequences and the monster effects were outsourced to the Japanese experts at Toho. Rather than phone it in, Shin put actual care and effort into the production. After escaping to the US, he even helped make a pseudo-remake called The Legend of Galgameth, which, despite some play on the Disney Channel, has become even more obscure than the original.

Supposedly (Heresay alert. Danger Will Robinson.) Kim envisioned Pulgasari as an anti-capitalist monster movie, but the politics come out muddled at best, even with the ol' propoganda radar cranked up to 11. Clearly the oppressed, aggrarian peasants are meant to represent the pre-idealogical proletariat, but at least to Western eyes (and probably everyone elses') they are much more easily identified with the oppressed, aggrarian peasants struggling to survive in 21st century North Korea. My wife watched portions of the film with me, and not being particularly familiar with the country, kept forgetting that it was a period film.
I can't believe I ate the whole thing.

The identification of the peasants with communism's victims rather than its creators is further solidified by the portrayal of the movie's villainous empire. Early scenes of soldiers harassing the villagers have a distinct air of collectivism. They commandeer the farmers' tools, proclaim the village their property, attempt to coerce the blacksmith into continuing his trade for their purposes, and say things like "stable government is a requirement for farming." Without the proper re-education about the glorious revolution, it is nigh impossible to pick out the intended revolutionary narrative.

Even more confusing is the purpose of Pulgasari himself. It would make sense that he is supposed to represent unchecked market capitalism; his unceasing need to consume sure makes for a clear, if inelegant metaphor. The problem is that there does not seem to be a logical way to reconcile the Korean communist ideology with Pulgasari's role. For one, the peasants would never have won their revolution without his help. Capitalism being necessary for the proletariat to throw of the shackles of totalitarianism sure doesn't sound like Kim Jong-il's sort of message, even with the postscript about it becoming just as destructive afterward. Perhaps this was Shin's intent; it would sure explain why the film was so rarely screened even in the North. An alternative theory is that Pulgasari is supposed to represent the military industrial complex or a strongman like Jong-il's old man, Kim Il-sung, but the necessity to overcome him in the end doesn't jibe with North Korea's perspective either.Pulgasari is watching you masturbate.

Depending on how you look at it, Shin Sang-ok managed to wrangle a happy ending out of his incredible life story. In 1986, his handlers let him and his wife travel abroad for a film festival and even take a taxi by themselves. After nearly a decade in captivity, an extra large tip for their taxi driver, and a frantic sprint to the American embassy, Shin and Choi regained their freedom. Afraid that the South wouldn't believe their kidnapping story, they decided to stay in the USofA, where Shin became facinated with Home Alone. After wracking his brain over a way to combine Macaulay Culkin's antics with martial arts, he helped create the 3 Ninjas franchise, even directing the second sequel. (You can't make this stuff up.) Eventually, he returned to his homeland to make a couple more films before passing away in 2006.


  1. Awesome. Absolutely Epic. Standing O.

    Pulgasari has found his way into my heart. How can you say no to those puppy dog eyes!

  2. Get your own lovable mini Pulgasari doll:

    Show your dedication to communism by indulging yourself in its polar opposite!