In Hong Kong, a well-known South Korean actress (Choi Eun-hee) mysteriously disappears. Suspicion immediately falls on her director ex-husband (Shin Sang-Ok). He travels down to Hong Kong to try to clear his name, where he himself is kidnapped. He tries to escape a couple of times, and for his troubles he’s sent to a re-education camp. It turns out it’s an elaborate plan by the son of a dictator. His wife was merely the bait; she’s been spending all her time watching and reviewing movies at his behest. The dictator’s son is a huge admirer of the director, and he wants Shin to work with him to make some movies.
But… he’s going to have to get married to his ex-wife again. A divorced couple working together just doesn’t fly in his country.
What I just described, by the way, isn’t a black comedy movie. It’s the bizarre true story of when future North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il kidnapped a South Korean film director and his wife and had him make seven movies. Eventually, Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-hee escaped when they were attending a Vienna Film Festival. They spent some time in America, where, under the pseudonym “Simon Sheen,” he directed and produced the 3 Ninjas sequels. He was reluctant to return to South Korea, though. “No one will believe you,” Kim likely whispered to him with a puckish grin as if he were Bill Murray.
Shin’s most well known movie made in North Korea is the kaiju film called Pulgasari. Now, this movie is supposed to be The movie was also supposed to be propaganda, likely aimed at capitalists. But Pulgasari opens with everyday people in feudal Korea being hassled by a local governor who takes everything from the people — farm implements and pots and pans, for example — in order to fund his war efforts. Dissidents who dare speak out are thrown in jail, where they face terrible living conditions.
I have no idea if Kim Jong-il had any sense of irony about the whole thing.
Most likely though… Kim was simply a huge nerd. The Supreme Leader engaged in state-sponsored terrorism and multiple human rights violations, but he was also a film buff who wanted to make a movie starring a guy in a rubber monster suit. And that weirdly humanizes him.
One of the film’s dissidents is a blacksmith who has been secretly helping out leaders in the Farmer’s Army. The governor catches him and throws him in a ramshackle jail with the other rebels. Before he dies, he says a prayer to a tiny metal figurine. His grieving daughter, Ami (Chang Son Hui), takes possession of the little toy after his death.
She and her brother soon discover that the little guy can move on its own. It’s cute, and it’s got an appetite for the crisp, clean taste of metal. At its original diminutive size, it begins by snacking on needles and graduates to things like farm implements. They name him Pulgasari.
Pulgasari himself was designed by actual pros… namely ones that had worked on Godzilla. To accomplish the special effects, Toho staff were tricked into thinking that they were working on a Chinese movie. He exists in various phases as he consumes more and more metal like a gremlin. First, he’s a tiny doll, then a human-sized creature, and then a pagoda crushing giant. The face of the main costume has very expressive features, especially the eyebrows, and the wide eyes solicit both sympathy and fear from the viewers.
And all of the sudden, a war movie breaks out, as if Kim saw a Chinese wu xia movie, pulled Shin aside, and said, “I want some of that action.” When the King gets word of the insurgents, he sends massive armies to attack and lay siege to the farmers. Now, a lot of movie is incredibly cheap. Wings mounted on the side of helmet shake unsteadily like they’re made of the thinnest plastic. The sound effects are exact same clanging sound, looped over and over again, which was charmingly old fashioned when the Shaw Brothers did it but a little out-of-date in a 1980’s production.
However, when it comes to hurling extras into a war scene, no expense is spared. (That is… IF the actors got paid.). They had no problem putting together scenes where hundreds of fighters run at each other is massive, chaotic battle sequences. There’s a scene, too, where burning bales of hay roll down the hill at screaming extras. I’m pretty sure these guys didn’t get any hazard pay.
The Farmer’s Army, though has a four story metallic minotaur. It’s a good thing he’s fiercely loyal to Ami, owing probably to his creation through her father’s sacrifice. He’s invincible. Swords can’t stop him. Nor can puny Wicker Man tactics.
The farmers gladly hand over their weapons, Pulgasari eats them, and he enlarges. This follows sequence after sequence where the King tries everything to stop the monster. Oftentimes, these solutions have zero set-up. I don’t want to be too critical of the director who blessed us with 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up, but Shin Sang-Ok gave us no reason to believe that Pulgasari could be defeated by exorcism. But what do you know, we get. scene where a priestess and her cronies slow Pulgasari down through a witchy dance.
Then again, maybe Shin just didn’t have time to spare. Pulgasari clocks in at a trim 1 hour 35 minutes. It doesn’t waste much of its runtime on boring, extraneous human characters. (Hello, literally all latter day Godzilla movies!) There’s only fourteen minutes of set up between the time the movie starts and the creation of Pulgasari, and from that moment he’s never eclipsed as the main star. Not even the rebels, who, outside of Ami, are never developed beyond being a persecuted collective.
How does Pulgasari stack up to its competitor kaiju? It’s better than Yongary, South Korea’s Godzilla imitator recently featured on MST3K. Pulgasari at least has the novelty off being set in feudal times rather than the standard space race setting. Thanks to the quick packing the movie remains entertaining, both from the standpoint of ironic humor and genuine appreciation.
Which brings us to the ending, which is somewhat thought provoking. Spoilers ahead! Stop reading and watch this on Amazon Prime if you, for some reason, want to be surprised at the ending.
After Pulgasari smashes through the imperial palace and returns the country to the farmers, you expect the movie to be over. The big guy should be walking into the sunset while the people cheer. That’s how most Godzilla movies end, after all. Instead, he keeps eating. The people hand over the last of their farm implements since he is the national hero after all. Ami, though, fears that Pulgasari’s appetite will lead to endless wars. She sacrifices herself by hiding in a bell that Pulgasari is about to eat. He chomps down, and then disappears from the earth.
It’s been theorized that Shin secretly made a movie that criticized Kim. Was he really saying that the savior of the people had to disappear for the good of society? If so… how did Kim not see the obvious analogy?
NEXT: South Korea does a political monster movie of a different kind and species with Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017).