In Paul Fischer’s compulsively readable A Kim Jong-Il Production, the final film made by kidnapped director Sang-ok Shin gets relatively short shrift. I guess that whole part about Shin and his wife Choi Eun-hee’s daring escape from their North Korean handlers/abductors was pretty important. But still, a few behind-the-scenes tidbits would’ve been welcome. I highly recommend Fischer’s book. It’s impossible to put down and an astonishing story. For the broad stroke explanation, Shin and Eun-hee were a major power couple in the South Korean film industry. Actress Eun-hee and later director Shin were kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il, the legit evil dictator of North Korea. Why? Ransom? Political maneuvering? No. To make movies. Jong-Il was a huge movie buff and the Dear Leader wanted to make his own movies. He wanted the best. So he got the best, by hook or by crook. From 1978 until 1986, they were forced to participate in propaganda films. Of course, this was after Shin was released from prison since he needed a few years of ‘re-education.’ Most of the resultant films are unremarkable, but their final collaboration, released years later, is anything but forgettable.
I was three years old when Godzilla 1985 was released in the states. I wouldn’t see the movie on VHS until the early 90’s, but it had a profound effect on me. Although ruthlessly re-cut/re-shot by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, it didn’t really matter to me since I was there for Godzilla and in that respect, it delivers. He looks amazing. Some close-ups are genuinely scary and his destruction of that damn Super-X is so cool. Screw those guys in that UFO-looking piece of shit. Kim Jong-Il saw a chance to cash-in on the original version, The Return of Godzilla (1984), and spread his doctrine about that pesky Western decadence. The result, though shot in the mid-80’s, looks as though it was made sometime in the early 70’s and features a massive, metal-eating monster called Pulgasari (1985).
There’s very little info about Pulgasari’s production, likely because of North Korea's secretive nature, but there’s enough on-screen kookiness to distract from the real-life atrocities committed by the despot and his army of cronies. We begin with a title sequence set to some gentle, pretty music and then we’re whisked away to a blacksmith doing blacksmith-stuff. They’re simple peasants, but it turns out one of them has a secret. Well, two secrets. One, he’s the leader of the bandits, an anti-government group of rebels; and two, he’s terrible at hiding things. He hides weapons about three feet from the blacksmith Takse (Gwon Ri)’s shop. The bandit leader Inde (Ham Gi Sop) decides to head off and join his crew, assuring the blacksmith’s daughter Ami (Son Hui Chang) that, “next year, I’ll come for you.” She hands him some food that looks like a severed head in a sack. There’s a huge amount of zoom-ins during these early scenes, adding to the 70’s feel, but after a while it becomes a style and ceases to be distracting.
A representative from the oppressive king (Yong-hok Pak) demands that Takse make weapons, ironically to be used in the fight against the bandits. Citing a lack of iron, the rep states that all villagers will have their metal tools and pots repossessed for material. All hell breaks loose and there’s a riot which results in Ami’s arm getting run over by a cart. She’s a fast healer since nothing ever comes of this. Inde, Takse, and the rest are taken to prison and beaten in the first of many torture scenes. The movie would likely be ‘PG’ or maybe even ‘G’ if it weren’t for the brutality of the beatings and torture scenes. This is likely due to the North Koreans' real-life penchant for brutal lessons in loyalty and their distorted perception of punishment.
Takse is dying despite Ami and her brother Ana (Jong-uk Ri, in a teary, ridiculously over-the-top performance) throwing rice over the wall into his cell. A confusing bit involves the guards trying to force the rebels to eat. Why would they care if they eat or not? Considering how starving the real North Korean actors probably were, this is a display of great acting. As a final gesture, Takse molds the mythical Pulgasari out of mud and rice and prays to the Gods to give his creation life and protect the rebels and the peasants. He dies, but Ami gets the small figurine, accidentally bleeds on it, and it comes to life. It’s a tiny little creature, no bigger than an action figure, and it’s pretty adorable. There’s some decent forced perspective with some over-sized props and they end up keeping baby Pulgasari as a little pet. The small creature reminds me of Minilla/Minya, Godzilla’s son. The monster suit isn’t too bad in these scenes, but there’s a silhouette shot that is clearly just someone holding up the stiff figure and waving it around. It turns out to have a big appetite for metal and the more it eats, the bigger it gets.
Inde is to be executed and as the executioner savors the moment and laughs with an echo, despite being out in the open air, Pulgasari pounces. The puppet effects are ultra-rubbery, but it bites the sword to bits, allowing for Inde and the gang to escape. It absconds with some farming tools and continues to grow. I was actually pleased with most of the subtitles in this film. Some translations of Korean films are terrible, but this one isn’t bad. There are still some bizarre exchanges, like when Ami and Ana come upon the tools. Ana picks up the equipment and says, “He’s close by. See?” Ami looks at the tools and says “And this is?” What do you mean? They’re fucking farm tools! What else would they be? They find Pulgasari and playfully splash around with him by the river. He takes the tools into the woods and we’re treated to more torture, providing another bad mix of cute creature bits and harsh violence.
We get a gander at the king, who is wearing a pretty wild hat with tassles. Ass kisser General Fuan (Riyonun Ri) says he’ll take care of the rebels, but Inde, sporting a very bright purple head band, ambushes them. They push big sticks and very light-looking boulders down a mountain and smash the army up real good. Defeated, the army shows off its impressive skills in synchronization by stating, in unison, “We are ashamed.” It’s decided they’ll starve the rebels off the mountain and we’re treated to scenes of peasants eating bark and weird wheat plants. Inde tries to get some supplies but is set upon by the army. The sound effects for the sword battle are hilarious. The noises range from what appears to be a bird getting choked to a smoker’s cough. Ami is also attacked, but Pulgasari returns, bigger than ever. It’s clear he has a bond with her. He joins the rebels and fancies himself a real badass since he’s strutting along and beating his chest. Using some terrible rear projection, we see Pulgasari get bigger and bigger, finally becoming the Godzilla-size monster we’ve been waiting for.
The final monster design would be nothing special in the Toho Godzilla series, but it’s also not embarrassing either. He’s reliably scaly with a padded chest and a seemingly indestructible exterior. This would lead one to believe that maybe the North Korean effects team had some real talent until I found out the ‘genuine article’ special effects team from The Return of Godzilla were tricked into working on this film. Told they were making a monster movie in China, they were instead taken to North Korea and forced to create the propaganda monster. Among the crew was veteran effects supervisor Teruyoshi Nakano and legendary performer Kenpachiro Satsuma, who was the ‘man in the suit’ for Godzilla from personal favorite Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) all the way up to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995) in which Godzilla dies. He performs similar duties as Pulgasari here, so at least we know the guy doing the smashing was a pro.
The rebels have a big celebration despite the need to remain incognito. The bad guys kidnap Ami, something the producers of this film have some experience in, and Ana, tool that he is, is unfairly blamed by some peasants. He’s been gathering wood with Pulgasari and he’s asked “What are you doing when sister is in such a crisis?” He wasn’t even around! It’s like being blamed for World War II but not being born until 1974.
The king's plan is to force Pulgasari into a tiny-looking cage or else they’ll kill Ami. Pulgasari is warned with the simple phrase: “If you go in, something bad will happen.” Regardless, he complies and they try to burn him. It doesn’t take and he emerges looking bright red. Some of the enemies end up in the river and he jumps in as well, boiling the water. There’s a lot more, but I think it’s important to note that at this point, the movie feels like it’s just making things up as it goes along. The king and general devise a plan to dig a hole and bury Pulgasari. This would be fine, but they literally think of the idea and then get attacked a few minutes later. Somehow, they’re able to get a gigantic hole dug in no time at all. They try to stall the monster by shooting rocket-powered spears at him. One even gets in his eye and makes a bloody mess, but he pops it out. A worker comes by and tells Fuan the trap is complete. Fuan replies, “Really? You did well!” Even Fuan is genuinely surprised they could dig that hole so quick.
How are they going to get Pulgasari to fall into the hole? Well, since Satsuma can’t see in the suit too well…I mean, they get a priestess to exorcise the spirit of the blacksmith out of the creature. Yes, they straight-up hire an exorcist. This is a crazy-ass scene with dancing and chanting and it surprisingly works. They bury Pulgasari with a fuckton of stones and then capture and hang Inde. Ami goes undercover as “the new whore" (this was meant for kids to enjoy?) and cuts herself over the rocks. Pulgasari is resurrected and fucks some shit up.
Once again, the bad guys cook up a plan in five seconds and have it ready by lunch. A well-regarded worker whom we’ve never met has “the greatest weapon in all history.” It’s described as a “giant iron cylinder filled with explosives.” In other words, a big cannon. Miraculously, they’ve got two cannons and they even have names. “Lion Gun” and “General Gun.” Clearly, they were chosen in haste. After a successful test, the king gets real specific by saying, “With this, even if there were 104 Pulgasaris, it’d be all right.” Why he says 104, I will never know.
The guns have little effect, save for a moment when a shot inexplicably glows and emits a chipmunk-like sound while entering Pulgasari’s mouth. He spits it back out and then proceeds to destroy the palace. Again, decent miniature work here. I like the rage destruction. The king is killed and his evil advisor spins himself in a sheet for no discernible reason. He’s stomped to death, so it’s clear they needed him to be covered since depicting a man getting stepped on by a giant monster probably wasn’t feasible for them. In the most blatant attempt at knocking capitalism, Pulgasari won’t stop consuming metal. There’s a hilarious effect where a pile of material is laid in front of him and it just disappears under his hand. An obviously tiny version of the gun is also picked up in a rough insert shot. Ami tries to tell him that he needs to practice “self-control “ and their need to continue feeding him would result in wars with other countries. In the end, she literally informs him that “humanity will fall. That’s not good.” Since he’s indestructible, she sees no other option but to sacrifice herself. She hides in a metal bell and though he crushes the bell into a ball, she’s swallowed intact. He turns to stone and crumbles to the ground. Baby Pulgasari re-emerges, turns into a blue light and flies into Ami’s lifeless body. I kept expecting her to open her eyes, but nope. She’s dead.
Pulgasari has a go-for-broke goofiness that forgives some of its worst effects. I dare say it could even be seated at the very far end of the Kaiju dinner table. Just make sure you serve extra metal on the side. Though Choi Eun-hee would only make a few more cinematic contributions, Shin had filmmaking in his blood. His most successful venture would be executive producing and even helming some 3 Ninjas movies, which I’m ashamed to say I most definitely watched when I was a kid. In a bizarre twist, Sang-ok Shin sold the Pulgasari story to Sheen Communications, resulting in the 1995 family fantasy The Legend of Galgemeth. At least he found a way to profit off of kidnapping and forced servitude. Joke’s on them.