It's a monster film (perhaps even a daikaiju film, though I'm really not the person explain the differences), but that wasn't the attraction to me. I'm not really big on the whole monster thing, though admittedly, my experience is limited to a couple of Godzilla films and the odd fifty foot woman. They just don't interest me much, really, which might make my going to seen this film a bit odd. Well, not really. You see, the attraction of Pulgasari to me was that it comes with the dubious honour of being one of the films that North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il produced. His producing did not, by all accounts, mean messing around with the film, or being one of those knife wielding control freaks, but rather by being a money man and organising the kidnapping of the director and his wife from South Korea. After some indoctrination business, a failed escape that resulted in four years prison, the director, Shin Sang-ok was released and given an unlimited supply of cash to make a number of films for the yet to be dictator. He made seven, by all accounts, and one of these films was Pulgasari,. It was the last film the director made for the dictator, actually, though another's name appears on the film. This, however, is because Shin and his wife fled to the United States while on a trip in Vienna.*
Pulgasari comes with many warnings about it's quality. It's awful, they say, splendidly awful, and propaganda, and various other things along that line. Made in 1984, the film is, really, quite limited in its visuals. Everything is filmed on a stage, and the little town that the peasants live in never, for a moment, looks real. Pulgasari himself, played by a Japanese actor who also played Godzilla, is nothing but a man in a suit, and you will be treated to many images of the suit rippling and flexing as Pulgasari smashes through a bunch of things, so unlike Godzilla in the original, you will never believe that you are watching anything but a man in a suit. In addition, time and the West has been unkind to the character Inde, who is pronounced as Indy in the film, which makes you think of Indiana Jones--though it's an Indiana Jones with a sculpted head of jet black hair, a dashing peasant farmer who plans to lead the rebellion against the King. Perhaps if Kim Jong Il had kidnapped Harrison Ford, you think while watching it, perhaps the film would have been a totally different thing.
Still, despite this, I actually found the film enjoyable.
Which is odd, because I don't go in for the rubber and shit and it's so bad it's funny business. When someone says the film is so bad that it's funny, I usually just give it a skip. I've watched a few Ed Wood films, the director who occupies the crown of the funny shit, and I just find them bad. Unwatchable bad. There's nothing of interest in any of those films, with the one exception being Bela Lugosi's final scenes in Plan 9 From Outer Space. There is one scene early on in the film where he leaves his house which has such a sadness in it that it is almost reason enough for the film to exist... but the film is still absolute shit and painful to sit through. Besides which, I'm morally against the it's so shit it's funny thing--there's enough mediocre trash out there, enough utter garbage, that the last thing I need to do is spend my time watching the funny ones, when I could actually go and find something interesting and, fuck it, good. Because there is a ton of good stuff out there, and I will not live forever, so I want to watch those films rather that the fucked up ones made by people who ought to have had their hands chopped off. In short: I don't go for that kind of film, so when I say that I enjoyed Pulgasari, it becomes interesting to note what it is that I enjoyed, because much of the the film that isn't high quality, and though it comes together in its own way, and bubbles along with a good pace, with a bit of humour (maybe unintentional) there is this sense that there is something else going on in the film.
Pulgasari is about a monster with the same name who eats iron and grows larger as he does. He is made by a dying farmer who has been tortured by his ruler after he refuses to make weapons out of the farm tools, and wants a revolution, with a bit of revenge in the mix. There are those who will tell you that Pulgasari is a Marxist/Communist Manifesto text, and while you can make the argument on a very basic level, it doesn't go beyond that. In addition, arguing that kind of reading isn't difficult: the original Star Wars is as much a Marxist text as Pulgasari is. But unlike the first, the latter has the ability to also function as an allegorical note to Kim Jong Il's position of power. I'll get to that in a second, but first, the rest of the plot, which is pretty basic: after the farmer dies, Pulgasari is found by his daughter, comes to life, eats metal and grows bigger and then leads the peasants to victory. However, after this, his insatiable appetite turns on the peasants and they end up in the position they occupied at the start of the film, unable to farm and survive because they have to meet the needs of thee monster, and are willingly giving him their farm tools. Shortly after, the farmer's daughter decides to kill him and sacrifice herself for the good of the community and the world.
What is interesting about Pulgasari is the extent that you can read meaning into the film about Kim Jong Il's rule and the position of communism in the country. Was communism, like the monster, an original answer to a corrupt political world that continued to make the lives of the peasants unlivable? Nearly all new forms of government that rise from a revolution are funded in part by this, so does, then, the sight of the gorged monster lying in the monsters, unable to rise due to his own feeding, a reflection of the government that exists now? Pulgasari's concern and love for the people he fought with has, at this stage, been swept aside by his own personal needs, and he is alienated from them, feared and important at the same time. It can be suggested that Kim Jong Ill occupies the same space. In one famous conversation with the director of Pulgasari at a party celebrating the Beloved Leader, Kim shook Shin's arm and pointed at the display of fawning before him and said, "Mr Shin, all that is bogus. It's just pretence."
How long then, the film asks, until he is removed?
It is arguable that none of this is in the film, or even the intention of the director and script writer. It is the nature of any critical reader to take the work and apply it to the world as he/she sees fit, and at this stage, original intentions fall away. It is for this reason, however, that I enjoyed the film. As Jesus remarked to me at the end of the film, "That was the best ten bucks I'd spent on a film all year."
* Since then, Shin has worked in the States under the Americanised name of Simon Sheen, where he has worked primarily as a producer, but also directed 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up in 1995.