Cult Cinema: Pulgasari

Look out for Pulgasari!!!! From the bowels of North Korea and Kim Jong-il's long dead brain comes a creature so scary, he'll give you an aneurism. 

"Oh, rooook!!! Americans have
very large penis!!!"
One of the more bizarre pieces of film-related news from 2014 was of course North Korea's absurdly overblown response to The Interview, the Sony hacks that went with it, and the potentially-industry-changing distribution-method shakeup that followed. According to many reviewers (The Movie Sleuth included), this surreal series of events was far more entertaining than The Interview itself, and it also cast a very interesting spotlight on North Korea's relationship with media and popular culture. One can't help but wonder: if the isolated dictatorship deemed a Seth Rogen flick worthy of starting an international conflict over, what sort of a role does film have in North Korea itself, and what exactly is North Korean pop-culture like? Well, at least one North Korean film is pretty easily available in America for those who are really curious... and it's exactly the sort of bizarre, unintentionally-camp propaganda that the Interview madness might have lead you to expect. From producer Kim Jong-il (seriously, that's not a joke) comes Pulgasari: a 1985 anti-capitalism propaganda piece... in the form of a rubber-suit giant monster flick.

Not unlike the case of The Interview, the tale of how Pulgasari came to exist is far more entertaining than the film itself; it would make a great movie someday. In the late-70s, when Kim Il-sung was in power, Kim Jong-il was but a young megalomaniac who happened to have a great love for Japanese Kaiju (that's giant monster) movies. He wanted to spearhead the production of propaganda genre films in North Korea, and so he did exactly the logical thing... he had his favorite South Korean director – and his wife – abducted and held prisoner, so he could force the filmmaker to direct movies for the regime. The last – and most notorious – of these movies directed under imprisonment was Pulgasari: Kim Jong-il's dream-come-true of making a Godzilla knockoff for the glory of North Korea. Fortunately, imprisoned director Shin Sang-ok and his wife managed to escape North Korea during post-production on the film, when Kim Jong-il allowed the two to go to a film festival overseas, and they fled from the agents who were guarding them. They successfully found asylum in America, where Shin would go on to produce and/or direct such fine films as the 3 Ninjas sequels (which, while not exactly good, are at least better than being in a North Korean prison).

"Beware!!! It's the giant
Herpes monster with legs!!!
But back to Pulgasari itself. How, you ask, can a rubber-suit monster flick be turned into North Korean propaganda? Well, just as the original Godzilla was a representation of Japan's post-war anxieties and the dangers of nuclear weapons, the Pulgasari creature represents... you guessed it... democracy and capitalism. And needless to say, the film presents them as being every bit as deadly as nuclear bombs. The film's oppressed peasant protagonists at first believe that the monster is exactly what they need to free themselves from their totalitarian king, but they have grossly underestimated the all-consuming destructive force that is a democratic capitalist system... I mean, Pulgasari. In a fairly ham-fisted bit of symbolism, all Pulgasari does is eat and eat and eat, much to the detriment of the civilization it decides to snack on.

It's about as subtle as one would expect from producer Kim Jong-il, with dialogue like “Pulgasari, why can't you just exercise some self-control, before there is nothing left?” The film also preaches the North Korean talking point that individuals are unimportant compared to the whole collective, starting with a hilariously obvious lesson of an elderly man refusing to stop and drink water until his work for the good of the village is complete. What is odd about the narrative, though, is that the film's human villain is, as mentioned above, a totalitarian ruler who to viewers outside of North Korea will look a lot like a stand-in for Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un, but the film is all about how North Korean people are in charge of their own destiny. The film is clearly trying to imply that the present North Korean government is on the side of the people, and against tyrany... but it seems like it would be easy for the movie to backfire and cause viewers to see their own ruler in the villain. In fact, since the director was an imprisoned South Korean being forced to make the film against his will, one almost can't help but wonder if that was a subversive message that he buried in the narrative on purpose. I suppose that North Korea is such a propaganda-dominated state that viewers would be conditioned not to connect those dots, but it is nonetheless baffling viewing from our perspective.

"Hey baby!!! I'm horny over here!!"
As all of that should imply, there's quite a bit of camp and unintentional comedy in Pulgasari, particularly in the first and last acts when the propaganda elements are at their most heavyhanded. However, it is also undeniably a bad movie, and not always in the fun way. Some of the martial-arts-style human fight scenes are competantly handled, and the creature itself – while totally cheesy and ridiculous – has a certain Ultraman/Power Rangers charm to it, but on the whole it's totally believable that Shin Sang-ok was making this under duress. It isn't horribly made; it's just pretty bland and uninspired. Plus, the forced-perspective and composite shots used to make the monster look gigantic are woefully unconvincing. It may be worth a look for the sheer curiosity value, and for the campier moments when the propaganda messages are most obvious, but when it stops preaching North Korean talking points and settles into the standard kaiju movie plot formula, it basically becomes just a very sub-par monster flick, a good twenty years behind the refinement of Toho's formula. Oddly enough, the stunt actor who plays Pulgasari is the same actor who played Godzilla in most of Toho's films... and in one interview he said that at least Pulgasari was better than Roland Emmerich's American Godzilla remake. That's some food for thought.

-Christopher S. Jordan