Screenplay by Kim Se Ryun
Directed by Shin Sang-ok
Hui Chang Son: Ami
Sop Ham Gi: Inde
Ri Gwon: Takse
Pak Yong-Hok: The King
Kenpachiro Satsuma: Pulgasari
The story of how this one got made is far, far crazier than anything in the actual film. Shin Sang-ok was the most respected and most famous film director in South Korea (which, at the time, was a little like being the toughest man in Akron, Ohio). During one point in the sixty-year cease fire between North and South Korea Kim Jong-Il, the son of Kim Il Sung, the dictator-for-life of the North, had the director kidnapped and thrown into prison for several years until he agreed to use his talents to revitalize the North Korean national film studio. Once he agreed to do this, nearly limitless resources were placed at Sang-ok's disposal to transform and modernize the filmmaking process of a backwards and totalitarian nation and to make North Korean cinema something that could be admired without the threat of years in a work camp or execution. Attendance at the movies was mandatory under Kim Il Sung; it was one of the many ways that the totalitarian North Korean government made sure that its citizenry was only exposed to the right ideas from birth to death. I'm not sure that enforcing attendance at motion pictures is really something that needs to be a matter of the state, but maybe it just depends on which movie you're telling people they need to see under pain of death if they refuse. People interested in reading the full story of the kidnapping and of Shin Sang-ok's eventual escape from the regime are directed to the book A Kim Jong-Il Production, which also goes into detail about the sheer terror and insanity built into the North Korean society from the top down.
One of the last movies that Shin Sang-ok made while in productive captivity was Pulgasari, a fable about being careful what you wish for as well as a North Korean kaiju movie (with Godzilla 1984 suit performer Kenpachiro Satsumata inside the big rubber monster suit; apparently the Japanese effects crew and performers were told they were flying to China to do another job but their plane landed in Pyongyang and they were escorted at gunpoint to the studios where they were informed that they couldn't leave the country until the movie was done). I hope that with the forthcoming shared cinematic universe that has promised an unworthy world a Kong vs. Godzilla movie in 2020, we get Yongary and Pulgasari in there too somewhere. I bet Kim Jong-Un could be persuaded to loan out his country's titanic beast to make a film, especially if he was promised that it wouldn't go out like a punk when a giant monkey beat it up.
Before I start the recap of the film, it's important to mention something that I learned in A Kim Jong-Il Production. Under his tenure as overseer of North Korean culture, Jong-Il had control over which films got made at the national North Korean film studio--he demanded that every single film had a "seed", a core idea in which the glories of the society that he oversaw would be articulated to its audience. So what you see in Pulgasari is what Kim Jong-Il wanted you to see. It could be that he never noticed another interpretation of the film's narrative, or it could just be me reading things into it thirty years later. But either way, the screenplay and concept of the film did meet with the total approval of the one man who could reward or punish anybody and everybody in the nation he ruled. I'm not sure how brave I would be about sneaking in messages that contradict what the Supreme Leader would want if I were the director--especially if I'd already spent a couple years in a prison where I was not allowed to move, speak, or close my eyes without authorization.
The film itself starts with a synthesizer theme reminiscent of the score to Phantasm (or I guess it's possible that Don Coscarelli's score composer pinched themes and melodies from Korean folk songs). Although I can't read Korean, the film has credits at the beginning (an innovation that Shin Sang-ok introduced to North Korean films; they were previously collectivist to the point that individual filmmakers were not permitted to show their names on the film.
Once the narrative starts, we see a peasant farming village in historical Korea where life is pointlessly hard. Takse, a blacksmith, is working in the forge while his daughter Ami draws water from a well with great effort. She makes sure to hydrate the older people in the village first, which is probably a really swell thing to do when you're living in a society that reverences one's ancestors. Her father, in late middle age, really needs to rest and replace some of the fluids he's lost banging on pieces of metal. Everyone in the film has a single name, incidentally, because that's how things rolled in Korea in feudal times. Last names were a relatively recent innovation there, and when people selected what they were going to be called from then on, half of the people living in Korea chose Kim, Lee or Park as their new family names. I apologize to any Korean readers if I screwed up the names in the list above the review; the family names should come first and the given names second, but if I messed that up please let me know so I can fix it. Checkpoint Telstar is committed to accuracy in nomenclature.
Anyway, Takse sends his hulking nephew Inde off to clean up some debris in the fields about three feet from the smithy; it turns out to be a pile of swords that Inde was hiding for a "friend" who is part of a local bandit gang. Takse says he knows his nephew is the leader of that gang and tells him how horribly his behavior reflects on the family. Inde says everyone's so poor they have no choice but to fight back against the oppressive government that has taxed them into becoming revolutionaries. Takse understands, but he also says that Inde and Ami getting engaged is no longer going to be possible.
Inde's sword practice by a river is interrupted by Ami's arrival; the bandit leader says he'll be going into the mountains for a year to serve as (the popularly elected) leader of the gang. Ami doesn't think she can live without him but Inde says he has to fight for his village, because between bad crops and onerous taxes it's likely that everyone will starve to death if something isn't done. He and a few other people from the village go off into the mountains to join the bandit gang. Ami, knowing how serious everything is, gives the group some of the village's stored food to help them with their journey. And they leave not a moment too soon, as a couple of representatives of the official government show up with a no-bid contract for Takse. It seems that "today, bandits have caused a ruckus at a certain location" (random-ass subtitle syntax, I love you so). A bureaucrat says he needs Takse to make a bunch of swords and armor for the soldiers so they can go murder the hell out of the bandits. Takse politely refuses, saying he doesn't have enough iron to fill the order without hearing how many swords that's supposed to be--smooth, dude.
It turns out not to be that big a deal--the bureaucrat has already confiscated everything made of iron that the villagers own. Takse will be able to beat their plowshares into swords and the army can take out the bandits. Which is great for everyone except the bandits and the villagers who can't do any agriculture now because all their shovels, rakes, cooking pots and hoes are gone. There's a lengthy scene of the military yanking cooking pots and saws away from struggling peasants; one assumes that the North Koreans watching the film would know the distinction between the bad soldiers oppressing the peasants and the good soldiers protecting them in their society. The peasant protest ends pretty quickly when it turns out that one side is engaging in a shoving match but the other one has swords. Inde gets hauled away for punishment and the soldiers leave with their scrap-metal carts to drop the metal off at Takse's forge.
Takse, for his part, won't engage in open rebellion against the governor but he can't let his family, friends, neighbors and bowling league starve. He has everyone take the pile of tools and implements away and stash it so he won't be forced to make the swords. Unfortunately his excuse is terrible--while he was sleeping, a monster named Pulgasari must have come by and eaten all his metal. The local magistrate has Takse beaten with a rattan cane (or possibly it is wicker) and thrown into a jail cell where he will be starved to death as an example to everyone who might thing about aiding and abetting the bandits. Inde won't eat out of solidarity with the blacksmith, and everyone else decides to go all "I am also Spartacus and not eating" in response. Which doesn't help Takse all that much, but he probably feels better about it.
Ami hears about her father's imminent death from starvation and rushes off to see him before he dies. The guard sympathizes with them, but tells Ami and her brother that if he lets them see Takse, he'll be executed. When Takse hears his kids outside of the prison, he tells them to leave before anything happens to them. Everyone's just so damn noble in this movie, aren't they? The kids toss handfuls of rice into Takse's cell but he realizes that he's too far gone for a single meal to help him at this point. He sculpts the food into a little idol and prays for justice at considerable length while the soundtrack goes all "Goblin". The end result is a little Neopet looking bipedal creature. Takse says that he's infusing his prayers with the last strength in his life, so the gods of heaven and earth should take heed and grant his wish if they can. The idol flashes with blue radiance once Takse dies, so it looks like the gods in this movie aren't totally useless.
Ami gets the idol from Takse's body when it is returned to the village for proper funeral rites; she's stoic while her brother Ana cries all night. Ami offers to mend Ana's torn work shirt as a way to take their minds off the current horrible, horrible situation and stabs herself with the sewing needle. A drop of her blood falls on the idol and it comes to life in a rather cool "man in suit in a gigantic prop sewing chest" set. I like to imagine the set designers in North Korea working on a really, really big pair of prop scissors for this sequence.
As soon as Pulgasari wakes up and Ami notices it, she also notices that it's eating her spare needles and pins and bleating cutely. "I guess it likes metal" is Ana's conclusion, and that means the tiny little Pulgasari has something in common with my friend who runs Cinemasochist Apocalypse. The little beastie scampers around and eventually the two siblings go to sleep with Pulgasari tucked in with them in their pallet. But supernatural rice-doll prayer beings don't sleep much and it gets up to eat their door bolt before Ami or Ana wake up. By the time they see something's up it looks like Pulgasari has run away. He's tiny, so he could be pretty much anywhere. Turns out to be at Takse's forge eating his scrap pile. And iron makes him grow--Pulgasari is now about five or six times his original three-inch height.
A weeping woman runs into the village with news that Inde has been convicted of treason for helping the bandit gang and will get a haircut from the Adam's apple on up in the town square as a lesson so that he'll never do it again. The executioner really gets into his job but Pulgasari bites a chunk out of his sword and then eats through the chains holding Inde down on the headsman's block. Turns out that the damaged sword snaps when the executioner tries to kill Pulgasari, and it jumps up as only an immobile doll can to attack the now-weaponless man in return. Mayhem ensues and Inde escapes in the confusion. When people tell the orange-robed government official about the situation the guy who placed the original weapons order with Takse goes to investigate (my apologies, but I don't know the characters' names and I don't know enough about the feudal Korean sumptuary laws to know what their robes and hats signify re: their ranks--but Orange Robe gives an order and White Robe carries it out, so one can assume Orange Robe is in charge). White Robe and his squad of soldiers run away from Pulgasari (now about three feet tall) when they see it, and the soldier who tries to kill the creature just breaks his sword in half. The dude who stabs Pulgasari with a spear doesn't do any better. Rather than fight the men, though, Pulgasari breaks a hole through the wall of the building he's in and walks away.
Back at the village, Ami is asking everyone to help her look for her Neopet but they're all pissed off because it's been taking bites out of everything it can find that's made of iron. Must be either a Grarrl or a Skeith, because those are the two species that can eat anything. Anyway, the two siblings go looking for their pet monster, and find some gardening tools that it apparently stashed for a snack. They find it in a river, slapping at fish out of curiosity. It's rather cute when played by a kid in a pudgy little monster suit, but it's also greedy enough to eat the hoe and rake that it takes from the pair. It also doesn't listen to Ana when he calls the creature back (or perhaps it doesn't speak Korean). Orange Robe and his two White Robe hench (as well as a Blue Robe guy) are busy ordering soldiers to torture an old woman by beating her to death, shins-first. They want to know where Inde is but she is tough enough to die before telling them.
Ami finds the bandit (revolutionary?) Training Cave and the men say they're willing to start their rebellion without Inde if they have to, but sure would rather have a competent leader when they go to rescue the woman from the soldiers that are whacking her in the shins over and over. The guards are quickly overcome and the rebels sneak into the castle to rescue the torture victims. They arrive too late for that, but just in time to get vengeance like crazy. This they now do, charging in to attack the governor (I assume that's Orange Robe). There's a hell of a lot of people fighting in this scene, with hudnreds of people filling the screen in the second-act fight (apparently soldiers from the North Korean army were the stuntmen for this sequence). Orange Robe trips and falls on some stairs while running away and his underlings leave him. Inde shanks him and he drops his treasure box full of gold, which spills down the stairs in a really boss shot.
Somewhere else, a guy I'll be calling King Black Robe has the most towering impressive hat of all, and is angry as hell at everyone around him for being cowards. Obviously, he's Orange Robe's boss and he just got the news about the brand-new vacancy on his national org chart. He wants to know why bandits and rabble were able to whip the asses of his soldiers, and appoints General Fuan to go take care of business in that village. If Brian Blessed was a Korean actor, he would be the guy playing General Fuan. Fuan says he'll "choke the life from the bandits" even if it kills him, which impresses the hell out of King Black Robe (who likes loyalty, as all kings do). Fuan and his troops march out to the castle that Inde and his bandits captured. They're not stupid, though, and retreat to the mountains where the soldiers will have a tougher time fighting.
Fuan thinks that farmers, even ones on favorable terrain, can't stand up to actual soldiers and orders his men to go start stabbing the shit out of everyone not in armor. The bandits say "screw that noise" and drop a bunch of logs and Styrofoam boulders off a cliff onto the soldiers. Battle is joined and the soldiers are routed thanks to the technology of "a bunch of spears on carts". General Fuan dresses his troops down, who say they feel terrible about their poor showing. Fuan says that's okay as long as they do better with the siege than they did with the stand-up battle. With the peasant rabble stuck on a mountain they'll have to eat horse organs and tree bark for lack of anything better. I like to thing that the troops have a nice barbecue and eat bulgogi in full view of the starving peasants just to be jerks. The few peasants that sneak out for supplies get wiped out by the soldiers, which changes the rationing situation on the mountain a little bit but doesn't get any more food up there.
When Ami makes a similar supply run she gets captured rather than just shanked out of hand, and the now man-sized Pulgasari saves her. He's still quite cute at this stage of his development but the horns on his head are larger and he has red eyes with a permanent sneer rather than the round cute-baby eyes he had as a newly created monster. When Ami goes back to the camp with her pet kaiju everyone decides to use it as a mascot / terrifying hell beast and attack the government troops again. This means they've got plenty of iron to feed the monster and it obligingly eats till it can't move--and grows to about twenty feet in height (this is realized through some SUPER CRUDDY rear projection effects). But hey, I'm just glad the monster movie remembered to put the monster back in it. The design for the full-sized Pulgasari is awesome, with broad stomach scales and small overlapping scales on his shoulders--both look like they're metallic but in completely different ways. He has a horned bull's head instead of the usual reptilian, insectile or simian kaiju heads. And he has a tail, of course, because virtually every giant monster's got one. Wicked claws and a mouth full of sharp teeth, too. It's a cool design because he looks like a gigantic iron golem--the face isn't very expressive but that works to the movie's favor. Pulgasari is a monster of iron, not flesh. The suit reflects this.
Well, General Fuan knows how to fight armies, hold a siege, oppress the people and forage for supplies in eight different terrain types but he doesn't have the first idea how to deal with a twenty foot tall monster. To be fair, I don't think any war academies outside of Japan have monster defense plans on the curriculum. Blue Robe knows that Pulgasari is compelled to obey Ami thanks to her blood giving it life (which hasn't been demonstrated at all in the film so far), but his plan is simple: Capture Ami and General Fuan has the monster on his side. Fuan decides that chasing Ami is the next plan.
The peasants are busy having a feast and celebrating their awesome new powerful creature while some sneaky jerks lurk around getting ready to kidnap Ami. Pulgasari's off tearing trees down for firewood and lumbering back to the campsite (and Kenpachiro Satsuma makes the creature look absolutely unstoppable just by walking in this scene--he is a fantastic suit performer). When Ana spends some time looking for fish in the river two crying women run up to tell him his sister has been captured. Pulgasari goes out to stomp a mudhole in King Black Robe's army, but four (!) soldiers are ready to behead Ami if the monster doesn't obey their orders. Fuan demands that Pulgasari bow down to him as a sign of fealty and then enter a huge iron cage so that he can't interfere with the coming military beatdown. Pulgasari obeys the general rather than risk Ami's life. The cage is closed and locked and Fuan's men set fire to the oil-soaked logs underneath the cage.
But this isn't a remote Scottish island and General Fuan is no Christopher Lee. Perhaps more to the point, Pulgasari is a fifty foot tall magic demon beast made of living iron, and the fire just makes him even more dangerous to Fuan's troops than he ordinarily would have been. It looks at first like he's going down for the count but soon enough the cage falls apart and the kaiju is still standing in the blaze. Fuan orders his troops to cut down the fleeing peasants when the monster walks out of the inferno, now bright red with all the heat that he just absorbed. So he's EXTRA DEADLY and the soldiers nope out of there over the horizon. The Pulgasari suit looks like it's just lit with red gels during this scene, which is a surprisingly effective technique that also makes the movie look like Mario Bava showed up for a quick turn behind the camera. When Pulgasari steps into the river where the soldiers are evacuating via tiny little rowboats, the water starts boiling when he steps into it and the retreat turns into a humiliating and often fatal rout.
Ami stops by to thank the monster for aiding the peasants even though getting heated to crimson and then cooled in the river injured it. She asks it to stand up again, and it manages to do this even though it's not in great shape. Inde says that as long as Pulgasari is fighting on their side, they will never lose. So it's time to kill King Black Robe before the soldiers can regroup. Sounds legit. The corps of engineers decide on a two-part plan to stop Pulgasari while it marches towards the royal palace, in two phases. The first is Operation: Dig a Deep Pit and the second phase is Operation: Drop a Big Rock On the Monster. Fuan orders his men to delay the peasant army long enough for Operation: Dig a Deep Pit to be completed and they charge out to fight the rabble. It's another sequence where a ton of extras are running around (and occasionally get set on fire from the pyro effects, because nobody wanted to ruin the shot, I guess). Once Pulgasari makes the scene Fuan's troops run away to lure it towards the pit trap. Just in case that doesn't work, Fuan has his troops launch spear-headed gunpowder rockets at Pulgasari. They make cool clanging and bonging noises when they bounce off his chest and torso, but until a lucky shot hits Pulgasari in the eye he doesn't seem to really notice them. Then he winds up bleeding, and furious. Thankfully the pit trap is done just in time and the monster gets lured towards it (after smashing a five story wooden building to rubble with its bare hands).
Fuan conscripts a priestess into his army so that she'll exorcise Takse's spirit from inside Pulgasari (which started as a rice-and-mud idol, remember). After a song-and-dance number / prayer session, the priestess works her mojo and Pulgasari stumbles around in a canyon as Takse tries to keep animating the colossal iron golem. It works long enough for Pulgasari to fall into the pit and an artificial avalanche of boulders buries him alive. Once the monster is out of the picture it's time for another soldiers-versus-peasants fight, and without their tame kaiju the peasants don't really do so well this time. Inde gets captured and gets fitted for a hangman's noose. He asks that the soldiers place his head on a castle wall so he can watch King Black Robe's eventual defeat but that's small satisfaction when he's dancing on air.
During the celebratory feast post-battle, Ami sneaks into the castle disguised as one of Fuan's favorite comfort women. But Purple Robe recognizes her from the village before she sneaks out with a wine jar for some guards stuck outside with scut work while everyone else eats dumplings, gets lit up and dances. Ami goes to the boulder-filled pit and calls for Pulgasari, who rises from the pit after Ami slashes her arm and restores it to life. Bad luck for Purple Robe and the redshirt soldiers who were sent to capture her. It doesn't look good for Fuan (who has to go tell King Black Robe that the shit has hit the fan again) but thankfully there's a military engineer who has just developed the cannon as a possible new superweapon that can kill Pulgasari. The craftsmen and engineers work around the clock to forge the cannons so that they'll be able to put up a fight once the monster gets to King Black Robe's palace--thankfully Pulgasari is strolling more than sprinting to get there.
The final set piece where King Black Robe's troops use the cannons against Pulgasari is a real humdinger. The king is hugely confident in his new WMDs, saying that they would be able to stop 104 Pulgasaris. That is a strangely specific number, but he seems confident in that choice. The cannon get used against the rabble at first, and then every shot gets aimed at Pulgasari once he's in range. Watching him stride forward through clouds of cordite smoke is awesome (and would have been even better if they'd undercranked the camera a little bit to make him look more massive); it turns out that he can catch cannonballs in his mouth and spit them back at the royal troops. The castle walls slow him down for about a second and a half once he gets to them and he chucks the cannon inside (where the powder stores go up in a blast and clear a path for him to get to King Black Robe and General Fuan. The fleeing soldiers still take time to butcher as many peasants as they can, because why not.
King Black Robe winds up stumbling during his panicked flight and gets hauled away by his elite troops while the monster strides through the imperial courtyard. The beast smashes his way into the palace via some really sweet minature-building effects (this has to be the best miniature building work I've ever seen in a kaiju movie), finally stomping on King Black Robe as he hides in a silk drapery cowering on the floor. The peasants celebrate their victory and probably repeal all the taxes they hated paying while Pulgasari strides out through the devastated royal palace.
But he's still hungry, so he works his way through all the discarded weapons and armor, but still needs to be fed. So the peasantry winds up needing to sacrifice their tools and cooking pots once Pulgasari's eaten everything nearby (including the Lion Gun that the royal engineer built to kill him).
Sure, it's good to overthrow your dictatorial leader, but once you have a new power in charge, you'll find that you miss the old one because the costs of leading yourselves without strong central authority are impossible to meet (this is probably the "seed" thought that Kim Jong-Il approved in order for the film to get made, but it shows up in the last ten minutes or so after eighty-five of the authority figures being utter heartless dicks to the peasant heroes.
Ana and Ami go to ask Pulgasari to stop eating everyone's farming tools, and the overfed Pulgasari lies there and moans (I think it ate too much steel and needs to have a lie down). Ami realizes that without the royal presence commanding her nation--and with Pulgasari endlessly requiring iron in order to live--the peace-loving workers and farmers of Korea will have no choice but to invade other nations and steal their stuff in order to feed the bottomless appetite of the revolutionary force they thought would be their savior. There's only one thing to do in order to prevent that from happening. Ami starts banging a gong in order to guide Pulgasari to her. Her blood woke the beast when it was a tiny idol and revived it when the pit-and-boulder trap destroyed it. Now it's her turn to shed her blood to banish the monster forever. She summons it to a temple, which the kaiju destroys to get to the massive iron bell that Ami's been striking to get its attention. The bell that Ami hides inside so that she can sacrifice herself to save her people now that Pulgasari has gone from unstoppable menace on their side to unstoppable menace that's eating everyone's cookware and shovels.
Ami prays for Pulgasari to leave the Earth as she does, crying inside the beast's gullet as she embraces death. And it works--the monster staggers before it's transmuted to stone and then shatters under its own weight. Let's hope that someone else in charge of the peasants does a better job when they're in charge, and nobody has to go through all this again.
Well, that makes one (1) North Korean movie that I've seen now. On the one hand, the effects were boss and the monster was keen. The story was quite engaging, more so than I'm used to for giant monster films. There was a clear progression where the stakes were raised each time force was used, neither side got through things unscathed and the spiritual dimension of the story added to the effectiveness of the film considerably.
The whole thing was made under threat of torture and execution. The director was thrown into prison for years before his will was broken sufficiently to make the film (and others). I'm used to turning a willfully blind eye to the moral lapses of my favorite artists, but I can't quite get the flavor of Communist totalitarian dictatorship out of my mouth when I watch this one. It tastes like blood and iron.
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