The legend of Pulgasari has it that North Korean dictator Kim Il-jong (like many totalitarian rulers, a big movie fan) had South Korean director Shin Sang-ok abducted to make films which could stand on an even footing with the products of other national cinemas; after years toiling in bondage, Shin escaped South again … it’s entirely possible Shin actually defected (twice) and tried to put a positive spin on it, but the story is more appealingly bizarre (and note the theme of weird abduction on Korean movies like Oldboy and Save the Green Planet). The major fruit of Shin’s time in North Korea is this epic fantasy, co-directed with Chong Gon Jo, which is often lazily lumped in with Toho’s Godzilla movies (Kenpachiro Satsuma, the 80s/90s Godzilla, is the man inside the suit) though its period setting and general tone are much closer to Daiei Studios’ Majin films, in which a giant samurai statue comes to life to defend the oppressed against evil rulers. Of course, there’s an ideological message in here, but no more so than in American or Japanese monster movies – and with less of an axe to grind than the anti-American South Korean kaiju movie The Host – and it’s complicated somewhat by the way tyrants tend to identify with the rebels they (or their immediate predecessors) used to be rather than the monsters they become.
In feudal times, with no dates or names mentioned, the evil King (Pak Yong-hok) has decreed that his minions scour the land, stealing metal farm implements and cooking utensils to be turned into arms. Blacksmith Takse (Gwon Ri) is supposed to do the sword-making but tries to keep back ploughs and pots for his village, whereupon he is thrown in prison by cackling baddies and starved to death – when a hunger strike by his fellow prisoners, led by rebel bandit Inde (Ham Gi Sop) in a Rambo headband, prompts the guards to give Takse rice, he fashions a little creature doll from rice and invests life into it with his dying breath. Takse’s daughter Ami (Chang Son Hui) cuts herself and the blood further animates the mannikin, whom she names Pulgasari after some unspecified legend. The creature has steer-horns, a stubby lizard tail, vaguely bearlike features and scaly skin. It grows by eating metal, and joins Inde’s rebel forces, reaching giant size by swallowing the swords of defeated royalists. The King calls in fanatical General Fuan (Riyonun Ri) to crush the revolt, and he comes up with several schemes – a cage, a pit – to take the monster off the board, only for the forces of right to triumph, and Pulgasari to stomp the tyrant to death. Then, in what might be a metaphor for runaway nuclear proliferation or (more likely) the transitory stage of capitalism which comes between feudalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Marxist view of history, the creature won’t stop eating metal, becoming as big a threat as the king was. Ami has to appeal for it to go away (‘Pulgasari, for the same of the farmers, please disappear from the Earth’) before all the metal in the country is gone and they have to raid other countries to keep him fed.
It has a broad-strokes melodrama feel with its suffering peasants and cackling baddies, more reminiscent of Bollywood than Toho, and the state resources mean that it’s relatively lavish with its special effects, battle scenes, period costumes and the like (though its academy ratio robs it of some spectacle). Some of the battles seem to involve genuinely imperilling or setting on fire extras in a manner that more safety-conscious film industries might baulk at. With rousing music and enough castle-smashing to please kaiju fans, this is a thoroughly entertaining schlock movie – albeit one with a more peculiar context than most. The print I saw had amusingly convoluted English subtitles: ‘Today bandits have caused a ruckus at a certain location.’