Pulgasari

North Korea Movies

This ain’t exactly breaking news, but North Korea is making headlines again for, amongst other things, threatening to re-ignite its ongoing conflict with South Korea as well as send missiles into a strange selection of American cities, including the home of Reject HQ. Just as the unpredictable, inscrutable, hermetically sealed-off dictatorship is characteristically vague in its threats, North Korea’s culture is something of an enigma writ large: very little of it is witnessed by persons outside the country, and even less culture moves into the country itself. In the age of the Internet, we’ve found out about North Korean life through journalists’ state-sanctioned tours, stories from those who were once held captive in the nation, or simply peripheral experiences like North Korea’s one-of-a-kind one-star airline. North Korean culture appears only in a piecemeal fashion to the outside eye – we receive esoteric details here and there, but little of it adds up to a cohesive picture of what North Korean life looks like from the inside. National cinemas have typically provided a shorthand for understanding a foreign culture. With what little we’ve been able to see of North Korean cinema, the nation’s cinematic history is as strange yet one-note as one might expect. But it also represents something of a former era. Whereas ideology permeates implicitly and heterogeneously within much of 21st century global cinema, North Korean cinema maintains a particularly 20th century sensibility in its decisive use of filmmaking for the benefit of the state apparatus.

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Pulgasari

We now live in a world where a 1985 monster movie is topical because of both nuclear sabre-rattling from North Korea and an upcoming Guillermo del Toro movie, and where you can see that movie thanks to the magic of the internet. Like almost anything related to North Korea, the Kim Jong-Il-produced Kaiju flick Pulgasari has a depressing beginning. In fact, it only exists because Kim had North Korean intelligence officers kidnap South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee. Held in captivity from 1978 to 1986, this was the last of seven movies that Shin was forced to make. In the film, a feudal King subjugates the lower classes to a life of misery, but a jailed peasant makes a doll out of rice that comes to life when it touches a drop of his daughter’s blood. As you’d expect (if you paid attention in middle school science class), this living doll hungers for metal. It also grows up big and strong and fights for the lower classes against the corrupt King.

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