Pulgasari was produced by a tyrant, directed by a hostage and features the acting talent of some of the most oppressed people on Earth. The fascinating backstory makes it an intriguing historical document, but it stands on its own as damn acceptable cinema.
I usually believe that films should be removed from the whirlwind of spin surrounding them and assessed on their own merits, yet with Pulgasari this is incredibly tricky. Too fascinating is the story of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife Choi Eun-hee, kidnapped by leader Kim Il-Sung’s notoriously eccentric heir (and slightly less notorious movie-buff) Kim Jong-il and forced to make feature films for the hermit kingdom or languish in the labour camps. Even if you were ignorant of this story, there’s the extraordinary world of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea itself, which you surely do know. Why else would you be watching?
Set in medieval Korea, an evil king confiscates the farming tools of an impoverished peasant village, eager to melt the iron down for weaponry. Pulgasari is the name given to a tiny figurine molded from rice and mud by a starving farmer. Brought to life by blood accidentally pricked from his daughter’s finger, he eats metal to survive and grow. Initially, he’s a cute little fellow who lives in a sewing kit and feeds on pins, but before long he’s gobbling pots, pans, swords and leading a revolt against the king.
It boggles the mind that Shin Sang-ok would have dared film this story of peasants in open revolt against a corrupt leadership. Of course, one could argue that the plot is a metaphor for the creation of the DPRK itself, the story of agrarian masses waging communist revolution. However, when we follow this allegory to its conclusion (which I believe was Shin’s intention), we see the people become slaves to the beast that liberated them and thus toiling in servitude to him. It seems the Great Leader was fighting not for liberation, but for his own material gain. “There is no end to it”, laments one villager bitterly when Pulgasari defeats the king and turns to demand more iron; as harsh a critique of the vanguard as you are likely to see in all of Western cinema.
Pulgasari is, however, not a perfect film. The score features some of the worst eighties synth you’ve ever heard, which is its one major drawback (besides all the forced labour.) The visual effects are primitive, but impressive in light of North Korea’s isolation and endearing in a kind of retro way, presenting a kitsch appeal to us in the era of mindnumbingly perfect CGI (thankfully Dear Leader was a better producer than George Lucas in this regard and did not go back and tamper later). The acting might seem melodramatic to Western audiences, but intense emotion is simply part of the aesthetic in Korean cinema, north and south of the border. Though jarring to foreigners at first, this expressiveness is one of many charming aspects to a truly rich cinematic culture.
Much of Pulgasari’s spirit is borrowed from Godzilla. Japanese company Toho (who created the franchise) helped with production and Pulgasari himself was played by Kenpachiro Satsuma (the man in the Godzilla suit at the time), meaning, in essence, North Korea has created a decent Godzilla adaptation, something the American imperialist pig-dogs have yet to do.