Film review #366
SYNOPSIS: A small village is by invaders who try to force the blacksmith to make weapons for them. When he refuses, he is sent to prison without food until he changes his mind. In his dying moments, he creates a small figure that he vows will destroy the invaders. When the figure comes alive in front of Ami, the blacksmith’s daughter, she realises the creature grows bigger with the more iron it eats, and the villagers begin feeding the creature their iron in order to fight the imperial invaders…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Pulgasari is a 1985 monster film and the first film I have reviewed from North Korea. The story behind the film is just as interesting as the film itself. The director, Shin Sang-ok, was kidnapped with his wife by North Korea for the intention of producing films such as Pulgasari for the government. Kim Jong-il, the leader of North Korea, was apparently a huge fan of the Godzilla films, and wanted to create his own version, thus why he is listed as the executive producer on this film. For around ten years Shin Sang-ok and his wife (an actress in her own right) were forced to make films for the government before eventually escaping when they were visiting a film festival in Austria and fleeing their North Korean minders. Pulgasari was the last film he directed before he made this escape.This whole story would probably make an interesting film in and of itself…
With regards to Pulgasari itself, the film opens up in a remote village in the past. A young man named Inde wants to leave the village to join a group of rebels/bandits living in the mountains, but Ami, a woman in the village who he is due to wed, does not want him to go. This drama is interrupted as an army enters the town to commission the blacksmith, Ami’s Father, to create weapons for their army. They take all of the iron items from the villagers to use in creating these weapons, which leads the blacksmith to refuse to help them. They respond by locking him up without food until he changes his mind. Just before he dies of starvation, the blacksmith creates a small figurine of the mythical monster Pulgasari which he puts his soul into, with the aim of protecting the village. When Ami gets the figure, she accidentally drips some of her blood onto it and causes it to come alive and start eating anything made of iron. As Pulgasari grows with everything he eats, the villagers and the rebels in the mountains rally behind the indestructible Pulgasari to drive away the invaders. The story as a whole is fairly simple, with a number of battles between the villagers and the imperial army, with a number of schemes by the King to stop Pulgasari as he relentlessly advances towards him. I suppose it doesn’t need to be much more complicated than a giant monster smashing stuff, and in that respect the film does its job fairly well. Some of the scenes centred around the other characters can dragon a little too long, and there are large gaps in between when Pulgasari makes an appearance which become rather dull. Nevertheless, Ami is a decent (and rare) female lead, and the setting is fairly well established.
The film is set in the past, and feels like it relies a lot on the history of Korea during that era. The villains are clearly meant to be Japanese, which is a typical portrayal of the country given it’s past in occupying Korea, and North Korea’s particular resentment of them. As you might expect, the film not so subtly fulfils the propaganda of the North Korean narrative, with the common workers banding together to overthrow the invading, imperial rule. In the end, Pulgasari becomes too big and continues to eat all the iron even after the invaders are gone. This leads to Ami sacrificing herself to stop Pulgasari. This is perhaps a reference to the revolution in North Korea leading to the creation of a monster that will bring about their destruction was a slight dig by the captive director at the regime that was holding him hostage, but it’s difficult to say for sure.
I was expecting a rather barebones film out of North Korea, and it more or less met those expectations. The production values and special effects aren’t much improved on the Godzilla films made thirty years prior. Nevertheless, just as those films still hold up well, some of the scenes in this film look fairly decent, particularly watching Pulgasari destroying buildings. The battle scenes as well feature a host of extras to give the feel of armies clashing. Some of the effects though, are pretty bad, such as when Pulgasari is small, you can clearly tell it is a hand puppet. The body suit of Pulgasari is again pretty decent, and has some moving parts and facial animations to make it more convincing. The soundtrack consists of a single synthesiser being played in more dramatic scenes, and is barely worth mentioning, but overall the film ended up being more well made than I was expecting. Pulgasari doesn’t offer anything new or exciting to the genre, and it loses some of it’s significance outside of it’s home country, but it is a rare and interesting example of cinema from a place you wouldn’t normally see.