Movie Review: Pulgasari (North Korea, 1985)

If you’ve heard about this movie, it’s almost certain that all you know about it is the background. Great Leader (and reputed movie geek) Kim Il Sung wanted North Korea to have its very own Giant Monster Movie; one that would be the equivalent of anything else from Asia. So he kidnapped South Korean moviemaker Shin San-Ok (and his wife) and ordered him to make movie magic. The movie never did get a wide release outside the “Hermit Kingdom”, vanishing without much of a trace when it was finally released in South Korea in 2000. A video release confused the issue by having the word “BANNED” appear on the cover in letters larger than that used for the title. It wasn’t really ever banned; it’s more like it was ignored.

All that nonsense overshadows the movie itself. While that might draw your attention, the real question is whether or not the movie is worth your time.

It’s set during the Kyoro dynasty (tenth through fourteenth centuries). An oppressive local governor, who has apparently never heard of scrap metal drives, is going around ordering all the peasants to surrender their farm tools and metal housewares for conversion into arms and armor to benefit the army in whatever little war is going on at the moment. One village tries to resist, but they are no match for the governor’s hooligans. The village smithy says they don’t have any iron, because the legendary beast Pulgasari showed up during the night and ate it all. The governor doesn’t like the joke; the smithy is tossed in jail and starved until he reveals where the village stashed their wares.

He sticks to his guns (or perhaps bows, since handguns hadn’t been invented yet), even refusing to eat when his daughters smuggle food to him. Instead, he mixes the rice paste, prison dirt, tears, and his dying life force into a sort of clay and fashions it into a little figurine of Pulgasari.

The figure is collected by his daughters when they come to get his body after he dies. It winds up in a sewing kit – in just the right spot to have a few drops of blood land on it when one of the daughters pricks her finger. This “blood offering” is just what it takes to bring the figurine to life. Right away, it starts noshing on pins and needles, to the delight of the daughters.

Pulgasari gives them the slip, but it’s clear he hangs around the village, learning all their rebellious sensitivities. The next time we see him, he stops an execution by the simple expedient of eating the executioner’s sword. As the rebellion grows, so does Pulgasari. All that iron he’s been eating…. He rather quickly reaches kaiju size, attracting the king’s attention. Kind of hard not to….

Asian monster movie buffs will see strong similarities between this and the Daimajin movies (Japan, 1966). But those were based on Japanese folklore (loosely conflated with the Golem of Jewish folklore), and given that there are more than a few similarities between Japanese and Korean folklore, it’s possibly fair to say that rather than being a ripoff, Pulgasari is just a different version of the same source tale.

Be that as it may, is Pulgasari any good?

I’d call it pretty OK. The acting is decent enough, and there are no obvious stupidities in the script. As far as effects are concerned, Pulgasari is realized through stop-motion, puppetry, the classic man-in-a-suit, and the usual matte work. There are lots of obviously foam boulders and logs, too. Noble rank in feudal Korea is apparently determined by how silly your headgear is. I’d put the whole thing somewhere between late 60s Godzilla and late 60s Gamera movies in quality. You can, given the movie’s background, read all sorts of political allegory and messages into it – if you want.

It’s not really a “Must See” movie; but it’s a pleasant enough diversion, if only for a little peek into Korean culture, and an unusual approach to the genre. It’s the first kaiju movie I’ve seen set in a feudal era.

How do you defeat a giant monster when your “superweapon” is literally a pair of crude cannon?

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