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.
The Godzilla connection is clear (Toho studios was even involved in the special effects), and the end result is a surprisingly entertaining monster movie. It’s grandiose in that soap operatic way that you’d expect, and even though it feels like it’s from the 1950s, there’s a lot to love about it – particularly the design and execution of the Pulgasari effects and the action.
Clearly it’s dated even beyond its release date (and, yes, it’s completely ridiculous), but Pulgasari’s successes are a testament to Shin’s expertise as a director. His filmography isn’t inconsiderable, although it’s sadly ironic that his first credit was for 1946’s Hurrah! For Freedom.
Fortunately, Shin and his wife managed to escape captivity while at a business meeting in Vienna to set up a new film for Kim – ending a terrible period in their lives where they were imprisoned solely because their captor was a fan of their work. Part of that period was spent in prison eating almost nothing but rice and grass, and part of it was spent living comfortably as a trusted partner in film production, but after escaping, Shin noted, “To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony.”
Since Pacific Rim is still months away, here’s an oldie to tide you over. Have fun spotting all the Communist metaphors and anti-Capitalist messages. Even the ones that are contradictory.