Jason Julier is back with another instalment of Eastern Premise. This week the focus is on North Korean monster flick, Pulgarasi. Apologies for the poor quality of the images in this article, it proved difficult to find anything apt!
Since its release in 1985 Pulgasari has achieved infamy due to events behind the camera. By nature North Korean features are few and far between despite Kim Jong-il’s love of the medium. The then leader in waiting has gone on to achieve his own place in the history books; even in movies if you count 2004’s Team America: World Police.
Kim Jong-il has a producer credit on Pulgasari and is widely acknowledged to have authorised the kidnapping of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-Hee in 1978. This international snatch was an attempt to boost the North Korean film industry, inject recognised talent into the system and in theory foster a series of acclaimed films. While such a vision never materialised, the partnership did produce seven movies with Runaway being the most notable. Pulgasari remains an oddity and is surprisingly watchable, particularly if you enjoy ‘man in a rubber suit’ Godzilla genre.
The historical feudal setting is the Koryo Dynasty that plays host to the eternal tale of farmers rising up against the tyrannical central government. The governor requests the local master blacksmith to produce weapons to order. Unfortunately iron is in short supply and showing no regard for local farmers and peasant lifestyle, he orders the ransacking of villages for iron. Essential items including cooking pots and tools to work the land are reclaimed prompting much civil unrest.
Immediately comparisons between the battle between capitalism and socialism can be identified throughout the plot. However for the viewer it’s the dubious realisation that Pulgasari was filmed when North Korea was experiencing real life issues similar to onscreen events and for its rural population a lifestyle almost unchanged in centuries. Sadly there seems to be no expensive spared with a cast of 10,000 extras from the Korean People’s Army, large sets and the involvement of the Japanese Toho Studios. Best known for their work with the Godzilla series, Toho bring the monster of Pulgasari to life with some ingenious model work and the classic rubber suits. Pulgasari feasts on iron, using this resource to grow rapidly and assist the farmers in their campaign. His hunger is endless even after the King’s army is defeated prompting a change in fortune.
Generally, Pulgasari is well executed apart from a wildly disorientating soundtrack that veers between synth tunes and grandiose orchestral sections. The experienced hand of Sang-ok does ensure moments of drama and emotion yet you are left questioning just how much control he had over the project during filming. Having already experienced the harsh reality of incarceration for several years at Prison no.6 and an alleged diet of grass, Sang-ok was in a no win situation. The prospect of upsetting the next leader would have been daunting and ultimately Pulgasari attempts too much. Combat sequences are rendered slapstick; laughable sound effects are overplayed and jerky panning shots minimise the wonderful countryside. The harsh nature of the farming lifestyle is downplayed in favour of the importance of family, love and fighting the oppressors.
Pulgasari was shelved in 1986 after the kidnapped couple fled whilst on a promotional trip abroad. The film was never seen again until 1998 when a thawing in relations prompted a limited release in the hope of securing vital revenue from outside North Korea. Pulgasari remains fun to this day yet the real story is behind the camera.