Gems ‘n’ Junk From the Cult Cache combs the vast wastelands of cinema history to unearth flicks buried beneath the surface of popular entertainment. In this instalment: the Kim Jong-il produced North Korean monster movie Pulgasari.
North Korea’s Dear Leader, the late Kim Jong-il, was talented at a great many things, among them building nuclear weapons, rockin’ a pair of sunnies inside, starving millions of people and looking at inanimate objects. He had a great passion for the cinema; in fact, if you believe the North Korean history books — and what’s not to believe, right? — he invented cinema and wrote prolifically on the subject, including the ‘seminal’ book On the Art of Cinema (1973) and The Cinema and Directing (1987).
Kim’s encyclopaedic knowledge of filmmaking, however, didn’t prevent him from taking rather brash measures in the 70s and 80s to ensure North Korean cinema remained at the forefront of…North Korean cinema.
In a real life story every bit deserving of a movie, the North Korean government, on Kim’s orders, kidnapped foreign director Shin Sang-ok (referred to as “the Orson Welles of South Korean cinema”) and his wife in 1978. When Shin was caught trying to escape he was sent to prison where he existed for four years on a diet of grass, salt and rice.
Shin was suddenly transferred out and welcomed to Kim’s inner circle (the dictator-in-wait apologized for the whole jail and grass thing, putting it down to a bureaucratic bumble) and so began a fruitful if forced feature film collaboration. Before eventually escaping while location scouting in Vienna in 1986, Shin was paid the equivalent of millions of dollars and lived comfortably. But “to be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony,” he later wrote.
Kim worked closely with Shin on a number of projects including full throttle Godzilla rip-off Pulgasari, which went on to find a dusty residence in the creaking hallways of shlocky cult cinema. The film is available to watch, in low quality, on Youtube.
The soundtrack is humorously over-edited. It sounds like an episode of Monkey Magic or a headless chicken running around in the kitchenware floor of a department store. Kicks, punches and sword clashes bang on the soundtrack with YOK KLAM KA-POW BONG YOW! effects while a blaring electronic keyboard dishes out intrusive retro music.
There are plenty of energetic and competently staged battle scenes, sometimes spectacular set pieces. In one scene the eponymous monster is herded into a gigantic cage, which is set alight, and emerges glowing like a log floating down the River Styx. In another he is induced into drowsiness and sleep by a gypsy woman and, falling into a huge crevice, is buried under rocks.
But this bad boy, whose life steps to the beat — or at least the ethos — of I Will Survive, is a hard one to keep down. There is something strangely upbeat about watching Pulgasari resurface again and again, wrecking the landscape and battling for the little guys in one a half hours of confusing madness — partly inspired and mostly borrowed, recycled bits and bobs hurled at the audience in a shower of hard, hallucinogenic rain.
The truly striking thing about Pulgasari is its anti-authoritarianism. The manner with which the powers that be are juxtaposed alongside the poor will come as a shock to viewers expecting a clear-cut socialist message. The opening twenty minutes display a humanism antithetical of Kim’s legacy, drawing a collection of united subversive characters who go on to fight the forces of oppression — the same broad forces, of course, he spent his privileged life a part of.
Shin’s brief was obviously lots of action, keep it moving, zoom in on the monster, zoom out again, trash the scenery, keep it ‘for the people.’ Less than ten minutes in temperates rise and swords clang — the military attacks a small village and a maniacal Lord beats a man while interrogating him about the whereabouts of his iron supply. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
Villagers are captured, but camaraderie maintains. One man refuses to eat before his fellow inmates; some throw fruit into the cage of a forlorn captive, concerned for the wise ol’ fellow’s well-being. This man talks to himself about saving farmers, about the need to create something every day. He makes a rock statuette “with the last of my heart” and cradles it before he dies. Others watch on from inside their cage: “oh farmer!” “uncle!” “Loyal father!” they cry.
Activated by a drop of blood (had Shon or Kim watched Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors?) the small statuette, Pulgasari, becomes a living thing. It eats needles, then anything metal — including, importantly, the swords of enemies — and grows very big very quick. Pulgasari becomes a saviour of the people. He rescues a man from being beheaded by eating the blade, blows up to Godzilla size and raises hell as one gargantuan beast with cold, angry eyes, stomping and chewing and menacing the King’s men. “As long as Pulgasari is with us our victory is assured,” says one villager.
Indeed. But pushing aside the metal and mayhem, what or who is this giant idiotic creature supposed to represent? What political message can be dug out from the rubble of this weird, bad, gloriously messed-up exercise in socialist filmmaking?
Pulgasari (spoiler alert, if revealing the ending of a Kim Jong-il produced monster movie is a concern) saves the day, crushing the King’s men and the King himself, who is hit by a collapsed column. But then, his hunger insatiable, the beast begins munching on his own people’s materials shortly before spontaneously combusting and exploding into a million pieces.
If Pulgasari was intended to represent capitalism, why not make him turn against the people who needed him and trash them and their society, exposing him for an unstoppable, unthinking, unethical monster? Could it be that Pulgasari, as one reading goes, is actually Kim Jong-il, rescuing minions from wretched lives and violent oppression, marking what has to be the one of cinema’s most spectacularly hypocritical metaphors? Or maybe Pulgasari was just a dumb beast, and the villagers chanced upon a stroke of luck, something cold reality could never match or sustain — so why, the film might suggest, put your hope into something that could never save you, when dreams like Pulgasari inevitably shatter?
None of these readings sit right. It would’ve been a hoot to sit as a fly on the wall in the production development meetings, and not just for the sheer weirdness of watching a ruthless man collaborate with a kidnapped filmmaker, storyboards and script pages covering the table. The Dear Leader, talented at so many things, may have had his message confused by excessive Cognac, or maybe he was just taking the piss, inspired by Godzilla and bored with life, something to do between women and war rooms.