Pulgasari – aka Bulgasari – is a 1985 North Korean film directed by Shin Sang-ok and Chong Gon Jo. The film, a giant-monster film similar to the Japanese Godzilla series, was produced by the South Korean Shin, who had been kidnapped in 1978 by North Korean intelligence on the orders of Kim Jong-il, son of the then-ruling Kim Il-sung.
Kim was a lifelong admirer of the director and Kaiju-like films, and kidnapped the former and his wife, famous actress Choi Eun-hee, with the specific purpose of making fantasy/propaganda films for the North Korean government. Kim Jong-il also produced Pulgasari and all the films that Sang-ok made before he and Choi fled the country.
Pulgasari has gained some popularity over the years because of the shocking story of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee’s kidnapping and strange captivity as the director and leading actress – the latter one excluding this film – of a total of seven films, for which the couple was simultaneously commissioned and forced to do by North Korea’s government. Jonathan Ross has stated that the film is intended to be a propaganda metaphor for the effects of unchecked capitalism and the power of the collective.
Teruyoshi Nakano and the staff from Japan’s Toho studios, the creators of Godzilla, participated in creating the film’s special effects.Kenpachiro Satsuma – the stunt performer who played Godzilla from 1984 to 1995 – portrayed Pulgasari, and when the Godzilla remake was released in Japan in 1998, he was quoted as saying he preferred Pulgasari to the American Godzilla.
In feudal Korea, during the Goryeo Dynasty, a King controls the land with an iron fist, subjecting the peasantry to misery and starvation. An old blacksmith who was sent to prison creates a tiny figurine of a monster by making a doll of rice. When it comes into contact with the blood of the blacksmith’s daughter, the creature springs to life, becoming a giant metal-eating monster named Pulgasari.
The evil King becomes aware that there is a rebellion being planned in the country, which he intends to crush, but he runs into Pulgasari, who fights with the peasant army to overthrow the corrupt monarchy.
“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.” Scott Beggs, Film School Rejects
“What doesn’t work too well are the matte shots; they’re not quite as bad as the ones in Yongary, Monster from the Deep, but neither do they indicate that the state of that particular art in Korea had advanced all that much in the intervening twenty years. In the end, Pulgasari is more a curiosity than anything else, and all but the truly obsessed can safely miss it.” 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting
“It’s amazing that after fifty years of monster movies, the technology has not changed. There are a total of three sound effects for the entire production, the monster still looks like a stuntman in a rubber suit, and rear screen projection is replaced by people actually running in front of a drive-in movie screen.” Dennis Przywara, Film Threat
“On one hand, Pulgasari is a cautionary tale about what happens when the people leave their fate in the hands of the monster, a capitalist by dint of his insatiable consumption of iron. But it is also tempting to read the monster as a metaphor for Kim Il-sung, hijacking the ‘people’s revolution’ to ultimately serve his purposes.” John Gorenfeld, The Guardian
” …the state resources mean that it’s relatively lavish with its special effects, battle scenes, period costumes and the like (though its academy ratio robs it of some spectacle). Some of the battles seem to involve genuinely imperilling or setting on fire extras in a manner that more safety-conscious film industries might baulk at. With rousing music and enough castle-smashing to please kaiju fans, this is a thoroughly entertaining schlock movie.” The Kim Newman Web Site