December 24, 2012

Pulgasari: The People's Godzilla of North Korea

Looking somewhat like the love child of a minotaur and a dinosaur, Pulgasari is not you're typical, everyday movie monster. Molded from rice by a wrongly imprisoned blacksmith (Ri Gwon) then brought to life by a droplet of blood shed by his industrious daughter (Chang Son Hui), the North Korean cousin of Godzilla is literally "of the people, for the people, by the people." After quickly growing from cute-and-squeaky squeeze toy to a growling, towering creature thanks to a diet of stick pins and swords, he becomes the mascot and war machine for a village of farmers fighting the royal army which wants to take all their tools, pots and pans and turn them into weapons. Naturally, the king (Pak Yong-hok) and his cohorts try everything they can to bring Pulgasari down -- a cage of fire, rockets to the eyeballs, a hailstorm of stones, a cannon shaped like a lion, even sorcery -- but the big man in the rubber suit will not be stopped from fighting the good fight alongside Inde (Ham Gi-sop), the bare-chested leader of the rebellion against the greedy government. And yes, you do get to see Pulgasari smash a few buildings along the way.

There's an interesting back story behind Pulgasari, too, as it's one of the movies-in-exile directed by Shin Sang-ok, the South Korean director, who along with his ex-wife/actress Choi Eun-hee, was kidnapped by Kim Jong-il -- the same Kim Jong-il who went on to become President of North Korea -- in an effort to strengthen his country's film industry. As producer of Pulgasari, Kim's efforts didn't stop with getting a famous expatriate director either. He also hired Japan's Toho Studio to help with special effects and had none other than Kenpachiro Satsuma, a Japanese performer who'd previously costumed up for Godzilla and other Kaiju monsters in his homeland, to play the title role.

Intended as a polemic against capitalism, Pulgasari occasionally feels as though it's criticizing any totalitarian regime, which is ironic given Kim's role as executive producer. Even so this 1985 propaganda flick never screened outside the two Koreas until 1998 when it was finally shown in Japan. If you're looking for more of the late Kim's work as a film producer, check out The Schoolgirl's Diary, which -- like Pulgasari -- is currently available on YouTube of all places. You might not like his record as a "supreme leader" but as movie execs go, he's not half bad.

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