Director: Sang Ok Shin
Writer: Se Ryun Kim
Cast: Kenpachiro Satsuma; “Little Man” Machan; Korean actors and members of the North Korean armed forces
Japanese crew working on the movie: Kenichi Eguchi; Yoshio Suzuki; Eichi Asada; Osamu Kume; Teruyoshi Nakano; Nobuyuki Yasumaru; Kohei Mikami
Executive Producer/Producer: Kim Jong Il
Duration: 95 minutes
Country: North Korea.
So, one of the first things we should before talking about this movie is talk about its back-story because it is… peculiar, not to say… straight up scary. Choi Eun Hee and Sang Ok Shin were a South Korean actress and a South Korean Director, formerly married to one another. In 1978 North Korean spies kidnapped Choi while she was in Hong Kong because she had been offered to direct a film and possibly run an acting academy and when Shin went to Hong Kong looking for her, at least to know what happened so that he could prove to the South Korean police he hadn’t done anything to his wife, he was captured as well and taken to the North. Both of them were treated with respect and allowed to live a comfortable life, even though she was still very much a prisoner she wasn’t sent to an actual prison because she didn’t try to escape, but Shin who tried to escape twice from his golden cage was taken to a less comfortable place, a North Korean Prison.
They met up again in 1983 at a party hosted by Kim and remarried soon after at Kim’s “suggestion”. From 1983 to 1986 Shin and Choi were forced to make (propaganda) movies for the North Korean regime. They were also forced to say that they had not been kidnapped but had gone to the North willingly, something that prompted both of them to start collecting evidence of the contrary because they wouldn’t be precisely welcomed in the South if that were true. They managed to escape during a trip to Vienna in 1986 and lived in the US were they sought asylum to escape before returning to South Korea in the ’90s.
But they were not the only ones working in North Korea against their will. We all know the tragic story about North Korea kidnapping those poor Japanese citizens from their country (many died, some took their own lives) and this movie has a “lighter” version of that. Kenpachiro Satsuma, had been the man in the suit for some Godzilla movies and even was the King of Monsters itself in the 1984 movie “The Return of Godzilla”, him and a crew of Toho workers were supposedly hired to work on a movie in China but they were taken to Pyongyang instead with their passports confiscated upon arrival “for their own safety.”
From what I know on this movie the only foreigners to be involved in themaking of Pulgasari were the Toho crew, the Godzilla actors, Kenpachiro Satsuma and “Little man” Machan (who had played Minilla), the rest of the Toho crew and Sang-ok Shin, Choi Eun-hee didn’t participate, or at least she didn’t star on it. The rest of the crew and cast members were North Korean actors and some of the extras (most of them) members of the Korean People’s Army (in large numbers)
So knowing all this was this movie worth kidnapping a director and forcing a Toho crew to help making it? No, but because no film is worth all that of course. Not because it’s a bad film, in fact I’d say it’s an entertaining movie, I dare to say it’s even good, not a very good one closer to an alright film but good nonetheless. Now be warned there are spoilers ahead.
Now the plot is a rather simple one, it is set in ancient Korea, during the Goryeo or Koryo Dynasty (918-1392 AD) and is a “King oppresses people, people rise up against the king” kind of story. Of course since this is a Kaiju movie, there is a Kaiju. Pulgasari, a monster made by a dying blacksmith out of the food his kids threw at him and inhabited by his soul who helps the rebels in their fight against government’s forces.
So let’s start by the story, like I said the plot is simple. I’d say the beginning of the story is rather slow, well it’s not but it feels like it and it’s probably the most boring part on the movie, we see that the people are indeed oppressed that the government is cruel and how the blacksmith puts his life at risk to help the people of his village and how he is punished and dies for it with the whole village mourning him. The good part of the first part would be when Pulgasari is born, after the blacksmith dies the doll he made out food, rice I think, it’s given to his son and daughter and comes to light after a drop of the daughter’s blood falls on it. The creature is a baby at first but is really well made it’s cute and eats metal (Wait… What? Yep it eats metal which was as we know the closest you got to radiation on the middle ages… not really).
The second part feels like time passes much faster and is much more entertaining. The Second part of the story is when the peasants rise up in revolt against the government, at first on their owns which doesn’t work all that well, even though they do win a couple of battles and kill the governor they end up surrounded by the royal army and are on the brink of starving to death when Pulgasari, who they had previously run out of the town because he had eaten all their farming tools and their cookware, saves them. From then on we see it fight on the villager’s behalf because it apparently has a connection with the daughter of the blacksmith because her blood was used to bring it to life and she can control it, even though it ignored her when it was a baby.
After fighting and defeating the King’s armies it leads the farmers to victory, not without falling against a few traps on the way and prompting the farmers to lose many men, including their chief, who was the blacksmith’s daughter’s boyfriend, who was also an apprentice of the blacksmith, when falls on them, and defeats the king, actually kills him in a very graphic way. I have to say even being weaker than Godzilla because most of the traps actually harm him, the King of the Monsters would laugh at the Puny Human’s attempts to stop it, I must say I enjoyed this part, seeing a Kaiju charge against medieval armies and the armies attempts to stop it is really good (it made me want to see Godzilla fight against Japanese medieval armies on-screen hahaha)).
But after the war, the villagers are faced with a dilemma. The King is gone but Pulgasari is still there and is still hungry. So they begin feeding him again, their weapons, their remaining farm tools and cookware until the blacksmith’s daughter hides inside a bell and when the monster eats it both of them die. Or do they!? Because from the ruins of Pulgasari a baby Pulgasari rises and turns into a light that enters the blacksmith’s daughter body (she doesn’t open her eyes but is clearly breathing when the movie ends).
So after spoiling the whole movie for you explaining the story what do I think about it. Yep it’s a story that’s been to death in movies outside North Korea, people rising against the powerful and fighting for justice and if Pulgasari wasn’t in the movie I would say “meh, there are many movies of that type that are better” at best but with Pulgasari it turns into an entertaining and even somewhat good story.
The characters, well the characters are divided in two. The good guys who are the stereotypical good guys of a movie where everything is black and white. But I would call them a little 2 dimensional sometimes, perhaps Blacksmith’s daughter, called Ami does a little. The little brother, Ana or An Na, was just there clinging to his sister, asking Pulgasari for help, or crying for whatever situation, he does have his moments when he meets baby Pulgasari though and he begins to treat him as a pet the first time it sees it and him and his sister treasure it because it’s the last thing their father made. The Leader of the rebels In De is just the leader of the rebels and Ami’s love interest he doesn’t annoy me but I can’t say I like it, I root for him because he is the good guy and I have to, or so the movie thinks, not because I care too much about him because his character is so likeable.
The rest of the “important” (but not too important) good guys are there to give the other characters the purpose of avenging them (In De’s mother and brother whose names are literally “Mother and “Little Brother”) except the Blacksmith whose other purpose is to create Pulgasari and theoretically have his soul inhabit the body of the monster. The rest of the good guys even if they speak are just extras. I don’t like that even though they show they can fight, and sometimes can use their head they turn almost completely useless when Pulgasari joins them.
The Bad Guys. Well I like the bad guys of this movie alone. They are cartoonishly evil always coming with wacky ways to deal with Pulgasari and being always surprised and finally killed when they fail. They like to evilly stroke their beards just so people can see how cartoonishly evil they are. There is no redeeming quality about them (which makes sense because of what I’ll say at the end of the review.)
Now the Monster. The monster is not bad, it’s definitely a Toho monster even if it’s not quite like Godzilla. Like I said before baby Pulgasari is really well made and it looks like adult Pulgasari (something that Minilla and Godzilla didn’t share: the appearance). Like with Godzilla through the actions and the people fleeing from it you feel him a monster and when they give it buildings to scaled down buildings to destroy it doesn’t feel like a man in a suit. For me it was a well made Kaiju.
Some effects however are ridiculous, in the movie they talk to Pulgasari standing near his clearly cardboard foot, which they overuse… a lot. When there was a large battle between soldiers and the rebel army well the sound effects were just not enough and it took from those moments. The sound Pulgasari makes is also a little laughable.
Now for the last thing, the propaganda of the movie. The Propaganda is present for example in the bad guys which represents the land owners and Japanese settlers of Colonial Korea, they were not pictured as humans but as people who were evil and should be destroyed. Pulgasari was apparently a manifestation of the will of the blacksmith to protect and save the world, like the Kim’s thought themselves as divine beings and the Party as a manifestation of the will of the people, he is the hero of the movie who if my last assumption is correct inserts itself into the girl so that she can live (Then again we don’t know if she lives or dies but she is breathing at the end, (could be just a mistake though)).
The thing is while all of this can be true, western audiences can watch this movie can watch this film as just another film. If you walked into this movie not knowing which Korea made it or its Back-story you would think it’s a rather entertaining Kaiju movie from South Korea, or if someone told you it was from Japan you and showed it to you dubbed in Japanese, I think such a thing exists, or at least a version subtitled in Japanese you would think it’s just another monster movie, an entertaining one at that.
Even though it is a North Korean Propaganda movie, it is, or at least was, banned in North Korea after Shin and Choi’s escape. When the Director escaped he was branded a traitor and his movies including Pulgasari were banned or in some of them his name was removed.
So what’s my score for this movie. Well it’s a movie that gets normally average reviews and I think deservedly however. It was entertaining and I think it’s worth a watch even just out of curiosity to see one of the movies that’s part of North Korea’s “golden age” of cinema. And I think if you watch it you may notice something really funny about the propaganda of the movie (many people on the comment section of YouTube were this film is uploaded sure have).
I give this movie Three Stars out of Five.