Kim Jong-Il was a sheltered rich kid raised on expensive toys inside a hermetically-sealed totalitarian dictatorship whose only exposure to the outside world was through Hollywood movies. So, when he got the chance to actually manage, he did what anyone in his situation would: he ran his intelligence services like he was in a Bond film, and kidnapped his favorite movie people and forced them to make films for him like living GI Joe figurines.
As described in A Kim Jong-Il Production (see our interview with the author here), in 1978, Kim Jong-Il lured South Korean actress Choi Eun-Hee and her ex-husband, Shin Sang-Ok, one of South Korea’s most famous directors, to Hong Kong, where they were (separately) drugged, stuffed into body bags, and taken to North Korea. And all because Kim Jong-Il was a fan. They were kept in isolated but opulent house arrest, from which Shin tried to escape twice, and was subsequently tortured, thrown into a gulag for four years, and only narrowly escaped execution. He eventually came to realize that he could catch more flies with honey – ie, that his best chance to escape was to kiss ass, and try to make the kinds of movies Kim Jong-Il wanted to see. The kind of films a rich kid raised on a steady diet of Rambo and Friday the 13th would love.
Shin and Choi eventually made seven films for Kim Jong-Il. Pulgasari, shot in 1984-1985, was the highest-profile and last of them, and the only one you can still watch today (I bought the DVD, but it’s also free on YouTube). A sort of Godzilla knock-off, as A Kim Jong-Il Production author Paul Fischer put it, “Shin was the guy who loved neo-realism and Rossellini and painting. You don’t win any prizes for guessing who out of him and Kim Jong-il came up with the concept of Pulgasari.”
Its similarity to Godzilla was overt, and in fact Kim Jong-Il hired the original FX crew for Godzilla from Toho Studios in Japan, as well as the stunt performer who played Godzilla, Kenpachiro Satsuma. Of course, North Korea being North Korea, “hired” is a bit of a misnomer here. Satsuma was told he was going to work on a big Hollywood blockbuster shooting in China. Then he and seven Japanese crewmembers were flown to Pyongyang, where they were told the film would actually be shot, and immediately had their passports taken away. “For their own safety,” they were told.
There were other complications. In addition to Shin working on several films at the same time, and using a North Korean crew who would steal all the equipment from the stage every night (a stage that was beset by constant power outages as it was), the Japanese FX crew had almost no contact with the North Korean crew. Who were scared to talk to them at all, since fraternizing with foreigners could spark suspicion that they were trying to defect and get them arrested. According to Satsuma, the star, he only met Shin, the director, once. Which shows in the final product, a film that’s sometimes incoherent and stars a monster that seems to change size a lot. Released in North Korea in 1985, it eventually became a cult classic a la The Room. At the time, though, Kim Jong-Il loved it, presumably unironically.
In fact, you can actually measure Kim Jong-Il’s satisfaction in dead animals. After it was released, a caravan of trucks pulled up to Shin’s studios, where his 700 employees were gathered to hear a message from the Dear Leader.
“The Comrade Dear Leader is delighted with Pulgasari and Hong Kil-Dong [another film produced around the same time]. He has sent these gifts in recognition of your efforts, which is a great honor.” Then, as the trucks started unloading, he read off a list of the contents.
“Gift list: Fifty deer, four hundred pheasants, two hundred wild geese, two hundred boxes of oranges …” Out of the trucks came fifty deer, freshly killed; four hundred pheasants, yet to be plucked; two hundred smoked geese; crates and crates of ranges fresh from Japan. Many of the workers cried.”
Who wouldn’t want to see a film that Kim Jong-Il rated 400 pheasants? I sure did. Having sat through the entire thing, here are some miscellaneous observations.
1. No plot is too far-fetched for an audience raised on North Korean propaganda.
Pulgasari is set in feudal Korea, where the gentle farmers are ruled by a greedy landlord (pretty much your typical Stalinist propaganda premise). The evil lord orders the farmers to melt down their farm tools so he can make weapons for his soldiers. When the old blacksmith refuses, he’s thrown into jail. Bleeding and on a hunger strike in his dank cell, his family throw him balls of rice to eat through his cell window. He takes the rice balls and somehow molds them into a tiny dragon creature, presumably using his blacksmith skills. As he’s dragged out to be executed, he gives his daughter his little rice dragon. Later, his daughter spills a drop of blood on it, and the rice dragon comes alive, infused with the spirit of her dead father. Then it starts to eat iron (I guess because it’s possessed by the spirit of a dead blacksmith?), starting with her sewing needle. The more it eats, the bigger and stronger it grows.
This was, of course, a film made for a guy whose official news agency would one day report of a unicorn lair, which seems to have freed Shin from any need for exposition. “Yadda yadda yadda, there’s a dragon made from rice who comes alive from spilled blood and starts to eat metal. What else do you need to know?”
2. Mini Pulgasari is the highlight of the film
It’s crazy that mid-80s practical effects from North Korea are still more fun to watch than most CGI. In any case, before he eats all the iron and grows Godzilla-sized, Pulgasari hops around like some kind of coked-up, miniature Barney, stuffing his face with metal like a Gremlin. I laughed pretty much every time he was onscreen. He’s also kind of terrifying, like a cute, clumsy version of the chestburster from Alien.
The awkward walking movements slay me.
3. Evil = Beard Stroking
Pulgasari has a series of bad guys who are virtually indistinguishable. There will be an evil bearded guy who will demand the peasants be oppressed, then Pulgasari will eat his men and wreck his house and you think the movie is over. But then it will just cut to another, higher-up bad guy you didn’t know existed until that point, who seems to know about all of the previous events of the film instantly, as if he himself had been watching it on a magic screen somewhere. The one thing all the bad guys share is a tendency to stroke their beards and laugh heartily. At one point, a bad guy’s underling tells him “We are doomed, Pulgasari has eaten the entire army,” and then the boss guy spends five minutes shaking his fists at God and staggering around his palace bemoaning his fate. Until the same underling tells him “…but we have been working on a weapon that could defeat him.” At that point, he switches instantly from staggering and crying to hubristic laughing and satisfied beard stroking. Only the big emotions count, folks.
4. Need To Depict Scale? Film A Giant Foot
This one is pretty self-explanatory, really. It cannot be overstated how much mileage they got out of that f*cking foot prop.
5. Magical Realism Is Weird
It feels like this movie was just sort of improvised on the fly, and to keep the action moving, they had to flail for some really odd plot points. At one point, the bad guys (again, oppressive lords and foreign landowner types), realize that Pulgasari the monster is inhabited by the spirit of the dead blacksmith who made him (…out of rice). Okay, so far, so good… Solution? A monster exorcism, of course! So the evil beard guy dispatches some weird shaman ladies to dance around Pulgasari. This puts him in some kind of trance, and then one of the witch ladies’ scarves lands on Pulgasari’s face. Blinded by the scarf and disoriented from the chanting, Pulgasari falls into a giant hole, where the bad guys cover him with boulders. Then the blacksmith’s daughter bleeds on the rocks and Pulgasari bursts out and eats the bad guys again. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
6. Sorry, Kim, We Only Brought One Sword Sound
Shin didn’t really have the capability to record synchronous sound, so virtually all of it was dubbed afterwards. The comical effect of this is that even when ten different things that make sound are happening in the frame, the ADR guys can only focus on one or two of them, making it feel very Month Python. And although they had 10,000 extras from the North Korean army at their disposal, the massive fight scenes still only seem to have one sword sound effect, this ping/schwing thing that sounds like a cross between the schwing sound from the just before the chorus of “Simply Irresistable” and an aluminum baseball bat. Meanwhile, whereas Godzilla had a memorable scream sound (“BANAAAA! BANAAAAA!”), Pulgasari just sort of sounds like a cow giving birth.
7. Priceless Dialogue
I don’t speak Korean, so I don’t know if the dialogue is as enjoyable in its original tongue, but some of the priceless lines include “Who do you think I am, you pompous beast!” and my personal favorite, when the blacksmith’s daughter sneaks into the bad guys’ lair dressed as a prostitute. A soldier tries to get a look at her, at which point the madam slaps his hand away, saying, “Are your eyes empty holes? It’s the new whore!”
That’s now my favorite response to text messages. “Are your eyes empty holes? It’s the new whore!”
8. Kim thought the antagonist was capitalism, though it could easily be read as the Kim family.
Probably the most interesting story move is that after Pulgasari kills all the bad guys, the movie doesn’t end with a big ticker tape parade where everyone’s stoked. Instead, after freeing them from bondage, Pulgasari continues to eat all the peasants’ iron. His appetite threatens to starve them once again, at which point the blacksmith’s daughter hides inside a giant bell. Pulgasari tries to eat it, and they die peacefully together (it’s unclear why Pulgasari dies from eating a bell). Supposedly, for Kim Jong-il, Pulgasari was meant to represent the worker’s party, a representation of the people’s will, which smashed the landlords’ power and which the blacksmith’s daughter gratefully sacrificed herself to. Of course, another way to read it is that Pulgasari was Kim Il-Sung and his heirs, who saved the North Koreans from Japanese occupation only to overstay their welcome and suck up all the country’s resources and infrastructure like a giant, iron-eating monster.
For his part, Shin himself called it “a pure monster film, I didn’t put any ideology in it” and I tend to agree. Sure, there are lots of ways to read it, but it’s also a movie with a monster exorcism that ends with a dragon eating a f*cking bell. Any allegorical read is going to have some flaws.
Shin eventually came to the US, trying for years to get a film made about his own life story – the kidnapping, the gulags, the reunion with his ex-wife, the eventual escape – which is sort of like Unbroken on steroids. This was apparently a non-starter in Hollywood on account of all the leads would’ve had to be Asian. Instead, Shin masterminded Three Ninjas (seriously) and wrote a Pulgasari knock-off aimed at kids, The Legend of Galgameth. So, theoretically this feature could have a sequel. But I hope not, because holy sh*t, look at this thing:
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.