Written by Kim Se Ryun
Directed by Shin Sang-ok
Produced by Kim Jong-il
Run Time: 76 minutes
PUGASARI INVADES BROOKLYN!
I recently plucked up my courage, gathered my travel papers, and left Manhattan for Brooklyn, located on fabled Long Island, which lies just off America’s east coast. The occasion was a rare public showing of Pulgasari , North Korea’s answer to Godzilla and King Kong. For this treat we have the scrappy and eclectic Spectacle Theater to thank. Created and staffed by a collective of shaggy and/or cute volunteers, Spectacle is an adventuresome little art house with programming that is all over the map: from old to new, domestic to foreign, high to low, mild to wild, you name it. If you’re ever in or near Brooklyn, I recommend you check out their web site for screenings.
Spectacle Theater, where you never know what might be showing. Enter at your own risk!
Pulgasari begins with an oddly sweet, rather downbeat tune played out on what sounds like a synthesizer keyboard. Imagine if an episode of Leonard Nimoy’s old series, In Search Of, went looking for Depressing Asian Melodrama, and you’ll get the picture. The mood continues as the credits end and we see a Korean village from about 500 years ago. Ami, a pretty peasant girl struggles to bring water up from a well. As she pauses to mop her sweaty brow, several nearby blacksmiths grunt as they laboriously hammer out farm implements. The work halts for a brief rest, but soon head blacksmith Takuse is accusing his nephew Inde of being a bandit leader. Inde admits to this in a shamefaced manner, yet it’s only a desperate attempt to escape the bone-crushing poverty of the village. But if he’s up in the mountains robbing travelers, that means he can’t marry Ami. “What a horrible world.” Laments Takuse.
Inde and Ami, our ill starred, would be lovers.
I should warn you that we are now seeing the “good old days,” before everything goes to hell in a hand basket. Which it does very quickly, even before Inde and his band of reluctant thugs can leave the village. For who should arrive, but the local governor. Worried that the plague of local bandits is now targeting government supplies, he orders Takuse to forge weapons for his troops. That might seem to be a plumb government contract, but the iron for the weapons is to come from tools confiscated from farmers already hungry after a bad harvest. Takuse is aghast, but the governor, a real fat head, serenely laughs that a stable country is essential for farming. So up march the soldiers to pillage every last scrap of iron from the desperate, pleading villagers. (I imagine this is what Fox News viewers fear would happen if the Democrats managed to pass an Infrastructure Investment Package.)
Taxation without representation. (Sorry for the quality of the screen shots. I lifted them off of YouTube.)
And they don’t stop with the iron, they begin seizing the young men too, because somehow they’ve become convinced they are bandits. They are, but how did they know? The evil government soldiers really get into their work, which includes beating old ladies and running over women with their ox carts. Inde and his crew put up a fight, but they are soon overwhelmed and dragged off to prison. Cue wailing and sobbing from the villagers. And things get worse, of course, for Takuse decides to return all the iron tools to the people. So he’s arrested and tortured by Governor Fat Head.
During the torture session Takuse tries to placate the governor with a cockamamie tale about “Pulgasari” taking all the iron. But Governor Fat Head doesn’t even form an investigative committee to check this claim out, he merely has Takuse beaten some more, before he too is thrown into prison. Cue wailing and sobbing. With no food or drink, either! Cue more wailing and sobbing.
Loyal daughter Ami tries to smuggle something into his cell, but she is prevented by the guards. Cue wailing and sobbing. And more beating from the guards. Hearing the wailing and sobbing from his jail cell, the valiant Takuse begs his daughter to return home. At the sound of his voice, she and her little brother throw handfuls of cooked rice in through the bars of his cell, wailing and sobbing as they do so.
But Takuse cannot bring himself to eat the rice. Rather, he starts mysteriously molding it with his hands. That night, in despair, he finishes his little rice sculpture. Holding it up to the light of the moon, he sobs out a prayer to the gods to save his village from starvation and oppression. And then he dies. Cue wailing and sobbing from Inde and the other prisoners.
Takuse’s moonlit prayer.
We are then treated to Takuse’s funeral. Cue wailing and sobbing from Ami and the villagers. But it is here that Ami discovers the little Pulgasari figure in Takuse’s hand, and takes it back to the dingy hovel she calls home. Depressed, she listens to her brother Ana sob in his bed. But she’s got spunk, and so she distracts herself by mending his dirty, threadbare shirt. Pricking herself with the needle, a drop of her blood falls on the little Pulgasari – and it comes to life!
This is good news, because we finally get a bit of light-hearted comedy as the adorable little squeaking fellow lurches around the sewing kit. Ami notices him when he starts munching down on her other needles. Startled at first, Ami and Ana soon adjust as they realize Pulgasari is a final gift from their father. Vowing to be the little fellow’s caretakers, they laugh at how cute he is.
He’s as cute as a button!
This brief interlude comes to an end when Inde’s mother comes, wailing and sobbing, with the news that her son has been condemned to death by Governor Fat Head. We cut to the execution, complete with nasty soldiers, and yes, more wailing and sobbing. The wicked executioner, who laughs like Snidely Wipelash, is about to bring the sword down on Inde’s neck when – up pops Pulgasari to take a bite out of the weapon! He’s bigger now, after a full night of gorging on farm tools, about the size of a teddy bear. But he’s tough too. When the wicked executioner strikes him with what’s left of his sword, it breaks. In the ensuing mayhem Inde escapes.
Pulgasari next shows up at the mansion of governor Fat Head himself. Now about 4 feet tall he inspires fear in the hearts of the callous and cowardly guards, who freak out when swords and spears fail to even dent Pulgasari’s hide. Back at the village consternation reigns, as Ami’s neighbors fear the strange beast will eat all of their tools and cookware. But Ami and Ana are convinced Pulgasari will save the village from the government, and they go looking for him. They find him bathing in a nearby river and have a brief reunion. But Pulgasari, probably still smarting from being hit by the soldiers, just grabs some iron rakes, and marches off into the woods.
Back at the government compound it’s Inde’s mother’s turn to be tortured, accompanied by the wailing and sobbing of her younger son. When she refuses to tell them where Inde is, Governor Fat Heat shouts, “Stubborn fool. Hit her harder!” –
They do, but to no avail. So Governor Fat Heads starts in on Number Two Son. If he doesn’t betray his brother, his mother will be killed.
“I will!” sobs the boy.
“You can’t!” wails his mother.
“You must!” barks Governor Fat Head.
Enhanced interrogation techniques of Old Korea
Where is Inde? Up in the mountains, training with the bandits, who have now become freedom fighters. Up rushes Ami. Sobbing, she tells Inde that his mother and brother are prisoners of governor Fat Head. Inde stages a daring raid, but too late, for both prisoners are dead. Enraged, he orders his comrades-in-arms to attack the governor’s mansion. We get some Hong Kong style sword play as the attack succeeds, and Inde even gets to kill the governor himself! (When he dies, Fat Head drops a box full of money, which spills artistically, and symbolically, down over a stone stairway.)
The victory brings Inde & Co. to the attention of the king, enthroned in his Chinese-style capital city. Enraged by this breach of the peace, King Fat Head demands a general who can deal with the menace. Thus prompted, an obsequious courtier informs the king that General Fuan is competent. – Interesting that the king doesn’t know who the competent military commanders are.
Informed lackeys – no fat headed king can do without them!
And so the competent General Fuan, after much flowery language at court, rides off to eradicate the menace. There is a great deal of military backing and forthing, forced marches accompanied by synthesizer music, and my favorite bit, a horrible attack by Styrofoam boulder! Finally, General Competent decides he must starve the peasants out, and he blockades their mountain stronghold. This leads to the arresting site of an actual horse carcass being butchered by hand. FYI, in case you want to skip this section. Ami, for her part, is stripping bark off a tree so she’ll have something to boil into a thin soup. Yum! Later she tries to slip through the blockade, but the general’s soldiers catch her. They are about to kill her when who should appear, but Pulgasari! Now the size of a man, and with large horns on his head, he has no trouble scaring off the dastardly soldiers. And being a gentleman, he escorts her back to the rebel camp.
Pulgasari’s escort service.
Once there Ami convinces Inde to enlist Pulgasari, and this leads to one of the movie’s most charmingly surreal scenes as the man-sized ox monster leads the rebel army to victory! Delighted, they feed him the captured weapons of the enemy and the next thing you know, he’s 4 stories tall. So you can understand that General Competent now has a major headache. “How is one to dispose of it?” he grimaces. Fortunately, one of his aids has an amazingly complete knowledge of how Pulgasari was made, from old Takuse’s rice sculpture to Ami’s blood. “If we catch Ami, it will do what we wish. HE HE HE HE HE!” To which General Competent replies, “HA HA HA HA HA!”
Before, and after.
The rebels are also in a good mood, and celebrating with a lion dance, drummers, acrobats, and dear Lord, more butchered farm animals! (I’m afraid I have the dainty sensibilities of a Western city-dweller on this one.) But Ami wonders off about 20 feet away from the celebrating crowds, and manages to get kidnapped by sneaky government goons. Isn’t that just like a girl!
So off goes the entire rebel army, and Pulgasari, to confront the nefarious General Competent. Boastful and insulting, he demands that Pulgasari enter a giant wooden cage, or else he will have Ami’s head chopped off. Pulgasari is, of course, offended and indignant, but what can he do? He enters the cage, which is a fiendish trap that soon becomes a blazing inferno as the logs that surround it are set ablaze by the heartless soldiers of the nefarious general. Cue wailing and sobbing from the rebel army. Ana breaks down. Again. Poor kid.
Who’s calling whom pompous!? (Grrrrrr)
And poor Pulgasari. Bellowing in pain he disappears behind a wall of flame. General Competent and his foul minions laugh heartily as the cage crashes down into the fire, and they congratulate themselves on a job well done. But too soon – for up springs Pulgasari, like a phoenix, in an explosive comeback from defeat! Only now he’s hot. Red hot! And when he plunges into a nearby river, government forces trying to flee in small boats get washed overboard and boiled alive. Yeah! (Sorry.)
Discovering a cooler, but still recovering Pulgasari in a nearby ravine, Ami and Ana (the brother) thank the mighty iron ox-man monster for saving the rebel forces. They then ask him, tenderly, if he can continue to fight against the government for them. So Pulgasari pulls it together, and gets back up on his feet, ready to take the fight to King Fat Head. And you know, this scene transcends its basic goofiness to become genuinely affecting. Well played Ami, Ana, and Pulgasari!
But General Competent has not yet been defeated, and he has several dirty rotten tricks yet to play, as well as scads of surviving forces. I won’t go into all the details here, but I will mention a couple of scenes where large burning balls of, something, are tossed into the hordes of extras playing the rebel army. Butchered animals and scorched actors – this movie has everything! And when Pulgasari & Co. reach the General’s HQ we get our first taste of kaiju-style destruction. Two thumbs up!
Take that General Competent!
But still, alas, the general himself has yet to be taken out. And it dawns on him and his advisors that military action isn’t doing the trick, so they try something interesting. Operating on the theory that Takuse’s angry spirit is the engine behind Pulgasari’s rampage, they hire a shamaness to perform an exorcism. She’s quite a gal, and she gives it her all. So impressive, and crazed looking is her performance that I have no doubt she could clear out a large section of Times Square. (That’s a compliment, btw.) She succeeds! This is a testament to her skill, and to the power of inductive reasoning. (Remember the theory!)
Without their champion, the rebel forces are defeated in battle, and Inde is captured. Once again he is on the brink of being executed. Cue wailing and sobbing from his fellow prisoners. But as the rope is slipped around his neck he tells them to buck up, and gives a rousing speech predicting the king’s eventual defeat. And then – they execute him. Wow. This movie doesn’t pull many punches.
Soon Ami and Ana learn of this tragic event, and Ana breaks down. Again. Poor kid. Ami is more stoic, but tears slid down her cheeks as she stares off into the middle distance. Then she rallies, and goes out to save the day!
A novel attitude for this movie!
Infiltrating the drunken victory party disguised as General Competent’s favorite whore (!), she soon makes it out to the big pile of rocks under which the immobilized Pulgasari has been buried. When guards threaten to capture her she pulls out a knife and cuts her own arm so that her blood flows down beneath the rocks. Mysterious booming noises and bright flashes of light ring out into the night, and then up springs a revitalized Pulgasari!
A dismayed General Competent flees to the capital to report to King Fat Head that the rebel army, along with Pulgasari, will arrive at any minute. King Fat Head really chews the scenery as he expresses his woe at this news. “OH OH OH! This is the end! What should we dooooo?” Very entertaining. Then he falls back on his standard management technique – he asks the crowd for a lackey with the skill to save his bacon. This time it’s General Competent who answers, which is kind of weird. But evidently he knows of “a worker of good repute” who is in the process of creating “the greatest weapon in all history.” Wow.
I’d like to pause the review a minute to ponder a king who doesn’t know that the “greatest weapon in all history” is currently under construction in his capital. – And by the way, where is that “worker of good repute” getting his funding? I’d also like to know what a free-lance armorer, seemingly unconnected to the current regime, is planning to do with this weapon once it is completed. – So many questions! None of which seem to enter the mind of King Fat Head. His tragic face of woe transforms into a winning smile. “HA HA HA! Tell them to hurry and make that weapon,” he orders. Indeed.
King Fat Head gets his groove back.
So it’s off to the walls of the city to watch a practice shot of the new super weapon, which is actually several pair of giant cannons. Watching them blow up a mountain meadow, King Fat Head exults, “My life is saved!” Jerk. But right on cue, here comes Pulgasari, larger than ever, and the angry hordes of the Great Unwashed. As they attempt to storm the walls of the city we get something that looks like a Korean War And Peace , with hundreds of soldiers charging through heavy artillery fire. Through all the mayhem General Competent keeps his eye on the ball, and orders the cannoneers to concentrate their fire on Pulgasari. Happily, the super weapons are no more effective than the earlier attempts to stop him. In fact, he ends up spitting back the explosive shells! Kaboing!
The end comes quickly for our bad guys once Pulgasari breaches the city walls, thus letting the angry peasant army surge in. General Competent fights bravely until he is struck down, but the rest, including King Fat Head shriek and run. But even the huge and magnificent palace cannot protect him from the wrath of Pulgasari. Wimpering and begging for mercy, he tries to hide in a curtain after Pulgasari brings down a wall (very neat!) and enters the enormous throne room. Pulgasari then steps on the curtain. Oops.
Pulgasari plays the palace. Rim shot. (Old vaudeville reference.)
You might think that’s the end, and indeed, a big celebration is staged by the triumphant peasants, but Ami is looking thoughtful. For she can see trouble ahead. Indeed, the king is dead, but Pulgasari still needs to eat iron. The grateful peasants bring what they can, but Ami and Ana are the first to see that it can’t go on forever. In fact, Ami worries that once Korea’s iron runs out, Pulgasari’s tremendous appetite will inspire invasions of the neighboring kingdoms. That could lead to the whole world being at war, and to the end of mankind! Emotionally torn, she concludes, “That would not be good.”
Ami and Ana on the horns of a dilemma, to to speak.
So that night she bangs on a giant iron bell to get Pulgasari’s attention. And once he arrives, she crawls inside before he devours it. Yikes! As she goes down the hatch, she prays that Pulgasari will disappear from the earth, thus leaving the farmers in peace. A shocked Pulgasari gets a big death scene. Sort of like Camille , only more affecting. And then he crumbles down into rock and dust. But as the morning sun reveals the shattered remains we see a little figure walking about – it’s Pulgasari as he was at the beginning. Accompanied by the melancholy Pulgasari Theme for Synthesizer Keyboard, he turns into a blue light and travels into the dead body of Ami. Who remains dead. We fade out as the camera closes in on a teardrop on her cheek. – And now I have to go get a Kleenex.
Sean Ledden (April 2015)
Before I get to the elephant in the room, a few short words about Pulgasari’s place in the Asian Kaiju Universe. It reminds me strongly of the 1966 Japanese production Daimajin, where a giant stone statue of a tribal god comes to life and avenges the oppressed farmers by taking out the local feudal lord. Both films take their time to wallow luxuriantly in the misery of the victims – much like the old Lana Turner films were built around the suffering of the central character. I for one find this hard to take, so it is a relief when the monster finally arrives to bring some excitement and general goofiness to the scene.
Speaking of goofiness, Pulgasari has it’s fair share, but the unrivaled champ for zany insanity has to be Hong Kong’s Mighty Peking Man. That film, which should be seen to be believed, has one of the most hilarious monkey suits of all time, as well as a cast packed with idiots and bimbos. In contrast, Pulgasari has a cool looking monster that is actually a compelling character: being both an avenging angel and a menace to the oppressed farmers. Add the touching dilemma of Ana and especially Ami, whose gratitude and affection is mixed with a fearful awareness of the danger, and you get an ending that has some emotional bite. Kudos to Hui Chang Son as Ami, Ri Jong-uk as Ana, and to none other than Toho’s estimable Kenpachiro Satsuma as Pulgasari himself.
And here’s a trivia note – evidently Pulgasari, or Bulgasari, was first made into a movie in 1962. For now it is a lost film, but Robert Hood, writing for his blog Undead Backbrain, dug up a poster and a synopsis. The poster shows something that looks like Mr. Potato-head, with fangs. And the synopsis has a murdered martial artist coming back as the monster in order to avenge his own death. So while Pulgasari is evidently an actual Korean folk-legend, I believe that Daimajin was probably the inspiration for the 1985 movie’s plot.
The Elephant in the Room
When Shin made Pulgasari he had already been in captivity for 6 years! But as least he had company – because his movie star ex-wife had also been kidnapped! Reunited in Pyongyang, they got re-married – at the “suggestion” of Kim. The creepiness just doesn’t stop with this story. Thankfully, both director and movie star managed to escape in 1986 while attending a film festival in Vienna. But Shin did not return to South Korea until 1994, because, in a bizarre twist, he was afraid South Korean security forces would not believe his kidnap story. It is amazing and disheartening to hear how a victim of a totalitarian dictatorship was further victimized by Cold War paranoia.
If you know anything about recent North Korean history, watching Pulgasari fills you with a sense of tragic irony. In the movie bad harvests have already pushed the farmers into perpetual hunger, but cruelly stupid government policies threaten to push them into famine. Happily, they are saved by Pulgasari. But less than 10 years after the movie was completed, the people of North Korea were not so lucky. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the money that had been subsidizing the Kim regime went away, but that didn’t prevent the younger Kim from staging massive and expensive public celebrations for the start of his own official reign in 1994, when his father, the “founder” of North Korea died. (FYI, Stalin was the real founder of North Korea.)
Very soon after, floods marked the kick off to one of the worst famines in modern history, complete with thousands of desperate people scraping bark off of trees, tales of cannibalism, and maybe 3 million dead. But in a weird parallel to King Fat Head, Kim spent over $1 billion to import 30 up-to-date Russian MiG-29s. (As reported by Joshua Stanton in his invaluable blog, One Free Korea) It is simply astonishing how closely Kim’s behavior matches that of King Fat Head, a cartoon villain created by his own movie studio to make contemporary North Koreans appreciate how enlightened their own government was!
Well, after that grim bit of history, I’ll end with some comic relief by quoting Kim’s The Art of Cinema:
“The ideological kernel of a production is the seed which the director and all the other creative workers should bring into flower through their collective efforts and wisdom. It is not only the basis of the interpretation by the individual creative workers, but also the foundation on which they all combine to produce one single cinematic presentation. When all interpretations are conducted on the basis of one seed, they form the components of one cinematic presentation because they are built on the same foundation.”