"Where's that matador?
We have unfinished business!"
"BANNED for a decade" screams the cover of ADV's new video of this previously unavailable monster movie. Banned from where? Banned why? The video box gives no clue as to why the movie was BANNED at all.
In fact, the story behind the film is much more interesting than the film itself. Pulgasari was the last North Korean film made by South Korean director Shin San-Ok. This is noteworthy because Mr. Shin was kidnapped by the Northern regime in the late Seventies and lived under house arrest for years. Apparently he was kidnapped on the direct orders of Kim Il Sung, who is North Korea's Great Leader and a reputed movie geek. Actually, at the time Kim's father was still alive, so we guess Kim was just the Pretty Darned Good Leader. Or maybe they called him Great Leader II: Electric Boogaloo.
In any case, Kim forced Shin to make several movies. Shortly before Pulgasari was completed, Shin and his wife managed to escape to the West. The movie was completed by another director (hence the credit on the tape reading Chong Gon Jo), and may or may not have been shown in North Korea. No one seems to know, and few people seem to care, so claiming that the film was banned (or BANNED, in letters bigger than the title as ADV does on the box cover) may be a bit of an overstatement. In the early 1990's North Korea tried to market the film to other countries, but there were no takers. In 1998 the film finally got a premiere outside North Korea, in Japan, where it was a small success. As part of the recent warming relationship between the North and the South, the film finally opened in South Korea in early 2000. Unfortunately, it made few ripples in South Korea's cinematic pond and promptly sank from sight.
"I am Vultan of the Hawkmen!"
Set during the Koryo Dynasty (918 to 1391 AD), our story begins with an edict by the oppressive governor of a Korean province. He decrees that all the iron in the area should be used to fashion weapons, including all of the farming tools. It's a real "plowshares into swords" kind of thing. Pretty soon women are wailing for their cooking pots and men are planning a revolution. The local blacksmith, Takse (Ri Gwon), urges calm, and is somewhat disappointed when his protege Inde turns out to be the leader of the revolt. But the governor's actions become intolerable, and Takse stages his own protest by "losing" the iron. His ingenious cover story is that a legendary beast named Pulgasari ate it during the night. The governor, unimpressed with fairy tales, throws Takse into the pokey.
During his incarceration with other members of the revolt (including Inde), Takse is refused nourishment. His two children, Ami (Chnag Son Hwi) and Ana (Ri Jong Guk), throw food to their father through the window of his cell. But after they go to all that trouble, Takse fashions the rice into a little doll. Geez, didn't his mom tell him not to play with his food? That goes double when you're starving to death. So Takse kicks the bucket after an overly long monologue and Ami winds up with the doll. Some consolation, huh?
Later, Ami pokes her finger while sewing, and some of her blood drips on the doll. The doll comes to life and begins eating all the iron it can find. It's Pulgasari! The little critter (who soon grows to the height of a couple of feet) also shows a distinct predilection for radical left-wing political causes, because it saves Inde from the executioner's blade. This scene resembles a bizarre Korean version of certain Full Moon movies, as a fully-grown man pretends to wrestle with an obviously immobile puppet.
"These Blair Witch souvenirs
Inde flees to the mountains with his army, and we are treated to a wonderful scene in which the peasant armies have to make do with what food they can find, including a slaughtered horse and tree bark. Considering that North Korea's current famine was just starting when Pulgasari was made, we have to wonder how these scenes were supposed to be taken. Were these, as some commentators have speculated, Shin's attempt at subversive editorializing on the conditions in the country? Or were the viewers supposed to understand that the famine was the fault of hostile foreign forces?
Back at the ranch, Ami and Ana look for little Pulgasari. Ana (which is Korean for "Kenny") eventually finds the monster and pretty soon starts declaring that Pulgasari will save them, etc. That's what Kennies do.
The film plays out a bit differently than most giant monster movies; Pulgasari is a much more politically active kaiju than his brethren. The big P (ooh, that sounds bad), having grown to man-in-suit size, helps the farmers by leading their army against the King's army. Imagine a really kick-ass version of Barney. "I kill you, you feed me, I'm a happy statuary." After winning a few battles and gorging on the spoils of war, the Pulg grows to be 100 feet tall.
Some twists are thrown in when the most evil general of all (as indicated by the fact that he has the deepest voice in the movie) comes to the King's rescue. Played by an actor who is Korea's answer to Brian Blessed, the General discovers that Pulgasari must protect Ami at all costs. Ami, who still carries water for the guerilla army despite the fact that she has a giant monster at her beck and call, is kidnapped by the riverside. The General holds Ami hostage and forces the monster to enter a cage, which is then set on fire. This is a terrific plan, except that Pulgasari is made of metal so rather than burning, he glows with intense heat. Moments later the General's army is on the run from red-hot death.
"I'm telling you, PBS is
going to love this guy!"
The General tries a couple of other strategies against Pulgasari, including a pit trap, anachronistic missiles and slightly less anachronistic cannons. It is all for naught, however. Pulgasari stomps through the King's castle and turns the King into a red foot-shaped smear. But that's not the end. The monster can't just stop eating iron. Pretty soon he's demanding that the peasants feed him farming implements. Can he be stopped? Luckily, Ana has seen Majin, Monster of Terror and knows what to do.
Pulgasari will not inflame the passions of anyone but a tried and true giant monster fan. Even those of us with more than our share of fondness for impossibly large creatures trampling across countrysides will find it a tough sell. There's just too much emphasis on the political aspects of the story; the sheer number of bureaucrats toadying to the governor is a sure sign that this flick needed more character development and fewer Machiavellian schemes. Ana gets ridiculously little screen time for a Kenny. Instead we get the peoples' heroine who spends too much time crying. Even she admits it: "I can't just sit here and cry all the time!"
As a monster, Pulgasari's development resembles that of a Pokemon -- small enough to fit in a Christmas ornament at first, but a couple of pronounced growth spurts over time transform him into quite the fighting machine. ("Pulgasaur, I choose you!") It's a good thing, too. The battle sequences, while impressively filmed, show the guerillas using what we can only describe as Ewok tactics -- lots of rolling logs and hurtling boulders, which are sometimes painfully obvious in their styrofoamishness. (Look, we invented a word!)
The same team that made Godzilla 1985 did Pulgasari's special effects. So while the rest of the movie looks rather budget impoverished, the suit is quite good. It almost looks like they reused the Godzilla mechanical head armature for some of Pulgasari's close-ups. Some of the scenes where mattes are used to put Pulgasari in the scene with human actors are really bad, but they aren't, as legend has it, people shot in front of a drive-in screen showing the monster. Do they even have drive-ins in Asia?
Pulgasari does operate as a wonderful primer on Korean culture. In the U.S., mail was delivered by horseback with the Pony Express. In Korea, they had the Crying Woman Express. Nearly every plot development in Pulgasari is delivered by a weeping waif. We wish we owned the Korean Kleenex concession.
This film also taught us that headwear was also very important in ancient Korea.
"The Eighties will never die!
"I must show solidarity with
my African brothers."
"Ya, I'm from Sweden."
"I beat Stone Cold Steve Austin,
and I'm wearing the belt on my head!"
"I love Mastermind
and Steve Martin!"
Despite the rather lackluster final product, Shin Sang-Ok cared enough to sue to get his name back on the film when it opened in the South. According to the Korean Herald, he failed. It would also be noted that Shin moved to America a few years back, changed his name to Simon Sheen, and helped produce an American version of Pulgasari called Galgameth back in 1996. If only more bad movies were so loved by their creators.