GODZILLA meets BRAVEHEART in a battle to the Kim Jong-il.
Downtrodden villagers in feudal Korea are aided by a giant magical beast called PULGASARI that feeds on iron, and, through its appetite for swords and spears and cannon, helps them overthrow the tyrant king. However, Pulgasari continues to consume iron, eating the villagers out of their farms and livelihoods, in a twisted parable of unchecked power being a boon and a bane…
Eiji Tsuburaya (the creator of “Suitmation” in the original 1954 GOJIRA), has a lot to answer for. So does Kim Jong-il. So, what do an effects maven and the dictator of North Korea have in common? Well, in 1985, when North Korea sought to shoot a daikaiju thriller, they used Tsuburaya’s state-of-the-art efx methods (recently used in 1984’s THE RETURN OF GODZILLA) to design Pulgasari. And Kim Jong-il kidnapped the filmmakers to do it.
What’s a dictator-in-training to do?
At that time, Kim was not yet dictator, only the son of the “first Supreme Leader,” Kim Il-sung, and had been assigned the post of Cultural Arts Director. A massive cinephile, Kim wanted to forge a cinematic empire that would rival Hollywood, and, finding no such filmmaking talent in North Korea, abducted acclaimed South Korean writer-director-producer Shin Sang-ok, and his ex-wife actress Choi Eun-hee. After months being held hostage, they were given the provisions required to create top shelf film productions and, though made under duress, their movies became regarded as cultural benchmarks at the time.
PULGASARI is Shin’s remake of a lost 1962 South Korean monster film called BULGASARI. Kim’s aspirations leaned toward blockbusters like JAWS, STAR WARS and the James Bond franchise, so we wonder why he would choose that particular heavily-panned B-movie to be remade? And from his rival Korea, no less! Maybe he wanted to flex with his new A-director? Show those Southies how filmmaking was done? Yet he still had to compromise with Suitmation – the solution for moviemakers who had monster-sized ideas but not a monster-sized budget (15,800 KRW).
PULGASARI is Shin’s last of the dozen or so films he made for Kim, before he and Choi were able to defect in 1986. (After defecting, their names were stricken from the films they made for Kim.)
PULGASARI rolls headlong into its straightforward story. The governor thinks the peasants are plotting a rebellion, so steals all their iron, leaving them to starve on dying farms. Leading the rebellion (whadaya know? The governor was right!) is impetuous Inde (who looks like Blackie Lawless from W.A.S.P. – remember this was the hair-band ‘80s – everyone looked like Blackie Lawless from W.A.S.P.) Elder Takse warns the villagers to hide their iron, so is taken prisoner and starved, along with all the young men, including Blackie.
Takse’s children, Ami and brother Ana, throw food to Takse behind bars, who foregoes eating to fashion his food into a little statue that looks like a cartoon bear. With his dying breath, he implores the statue: “Pulgasari, because I made you with the last of my true heart, please save humanity in my place.” We were empathizing with the movie’s tragic plot, now suddenly — magic who cares fuck you.
Ani pries the 6-inch Pulgasari figurine from her father’s cold, dead hands. She accidentally bleeds on it, and it springs to life, making squeeze-toy noises as it eats all her sewing needles. At night, it chews off the door latch, goes outside and proceeds to snack on pots and pans. The 6-inch figure was alternately a tiny puppet, and a man-in-suit with oversized props; in quick order, Pulga would grow precipitously: the 3-foot beast is a hand puppet; the 6-foot version is a man in a rubber suit, and the giant version is, of course, a rubber suit with tiny props surrounding it. All the versions look slightly different – kudos to the costumers for not just creating one all-purpose Pulgasari suit.
Funniest scene is when Pulga is still a 6-inch baby, and an executioner is about to lop off Blackie’s head – Pulga, looking like a puppet Gremlin, leaps onto the executioner’s sword and eats it!
The man in the suit: legend Kenpachirô Satsuma! He fought Godzilla as Hedorah (1971) and as Gigan (1972, 1973), and he IS Godzilla in the 1984 reboot THE RETURN OF GODZILLA. After PULGASARI, Ken would go on to play Godzilla in all the Heisei period films (7 in total).
The Pulgasari from Korean mythology is supposedly part bear, part elephant, rhino, tiger and bull, but this Pulgasari looks like Winnie the Pooh when he’s a six-inch bear, and like a minotaur when he’s grown to his full height of Heisei Godzilla (a bull head and humanoid body, complete with body armor and a short tail). The full-grown Pulgasari costume has movable facial features with big, round eyes and a movable snout (like the 1985 Heisei Godz rubber), and of course, Zilla-like thunder thighs. Toho Company (Godzilla’s home) actually had a hand in the effects.
Over a synth soundtrack (hey, it’s the eighties!), Blackie leads his lawless rebels against the Governor, tempting 6-foot Pulga with the prospect that he will have lots of iron weapons to eat. Pulga somehow understands North Korean (or he’s reading the subtitles) because he not only goes on a gluttonous eating spree alongside Blackie’s men, he also routs the Governor’s armies with his massive fight and invulnerable hide, to aid the peasants.
After defeating the Governor, Blackie, like William Wallace, wants to take the fight to the King. The King marshals his elite forces under a General who looks like 80’s non-makeup Gene Simmons.
By now, Pulgasari has grown to a gigantic size on his constant diet of iron (all camera angles are low, with imperceptible slomo added), and though Gene unleashes his war machine, Pulga tears through it like buttah in ridiculously bad process shots. Though it’s impressive to see 10,000 extras in battle scenes, movie becomes repetitive as the King tries over and over to thwart Pulgasari:
- Since Pulga is alive through Ami’s blood, it cannot disobey her, so kidnapping her would allow King to rule over Pulga – Pulga rescues Ami;
- entrap Pulga in a wooden cage and burn him alive – he bursts out, reddened and furious;
- entrap Pulga in a giant hole – he escapes;
- King’s witch exorcises Elder Takse’s soul from Pulga – it comes back via Ami’s bleeding on him;
- giant arrow through Pulga’s eye – he pulls it out…
Pulgasari steps on the King, flattening him.
Editing out some of those efforts might have streamlined the movie a little, as the real message only shboings at us AFTER the King is dead. Y’see, Pulgasari continues to eat…
Ami speaks to him: “If you eat our farming tools, we can’t make a living… Just exercise some self-control – you’ll be our ally to the end.” But Pulga suddenly “No Habla North Korean,” as he continues to eat insatiably – weapons, household wares, ploughs, everything. What does this invulnerable beast care about being anyone’s ally; it simply ate iron, which coincidentally benefitted the peasants. Ami realizes that when her country’s iron is all gone, they’d have to invade other countries just to feed Pulgasari, “…then the whole world will be at war, and humanity would fall…”
Firstly, who decreed that Pulgasari was theirs to care for? And why is it their obligation to feed him? (Maybe because he was magicked into existence by the old man specifically to help them?)
Ami sacrifices herself to save the villagers, by hiding in a giant bell, which she tricks Pulga into swallowing along with herself as filling. Upon eating her flesh, Pulga turns to stone and disintegrates. How did a creature that was brought to life by Ami’s blood, now explode when it consumes all her blood? It’s magic who cares fuck you.
There is much conjecture on PULGASARI’s deeper meaning. An allegory for the evils of capitalism – consuming everything around it unendingly? A parable of a weapon of mass destruction turning on you – benefiting you UNTIL there is no one left to use it on, becoming your own destruction? Or just a fun romp in the vein of Godzilla (most people forgetting that even the original GOJIRA was an allegorical indictment of nuclear weapons, as opposed to the kiddie fare it became in the Showa period).
Though made in 1985, PULGASARI would not become known to the outside world until decades later. In 1996, THE LEGEND OF GALGAMETH retells PULGASARI for Western audiences, lifted directly from Shin Sang-ok’s story; in 2000, PULGASARI became the first North Korean film to be released in South Korea; in 2015, it was released in the USA on DVD, for us to re-connect with the retro metal hairstyles of young hip rebels.
I guess Blackie Lawless and Gene Simmons have a lot to answer for as well.