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Pulgasari

Some movies are weirder than others. Take, for example Pulgasari. A North Korean monster movie, set in feudal times may sound pretty odd to begin with, but it gets even stranger when you realise that this was a movie produced by recently deceased dictator and all round bad guy, Kim Jong-il.

It gets stranger; Jong-il was a big fan of Godzilla movies (and at the time, merely the son of a tyrant), and had decided that he was going to boost North Korea’s movie industry. Rather than simply invest in film schools and encourage home-grown talent, he decided to go for the Bond-villain route of kidnapping an actress called Choi Eun-hee, who happened to be the ex-wife of a South Korean movie-maker called Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents shortly afterwards. Kim Jong-il then imprisoned the pair and forced them to re-marry. Only then did he ask them to produce movies for the state. 1

So what about the movie itself? Well, it’s a big budget monster movie, in the style of Godzilla, that was made back in the Eighties. This means many of the effects rely on a guy in a rubber suit2 thrashing around and knocking down lots of models of buildings. This actually lends a lot of charm to the picture, which it needs when you consider it’s rather dark origins. It’s a period piece (as if they could make this even stranger), and it features lavish costumes and sets, as well as a huge cast. It’s also only 90 minutes long, which is about the right sort of length for this kind of thing.

Cute, in a goofy looking giant metal eating monster sort of way

Like most good monster movies (and it is a good example of the genre), the plot focuses on the human elements, whilst the monster moves the story forward. At its core, Pulgasari is a tale of ordinary people overthrowing tyranny. The titular monster’s creation story is one of tragedy, it being created through the dying wish of a humble blacksmith forced to starve to death by an evil king. The creature grows by eating iron, and because most of the metal belongs to the kings’ army, it attacks him and his forces first. Eventually, of course, the monster turns on the people and has to be destroyed, but only after a great price has been paid.3

Much has been made of the story by those looking to read a deeper political context into the feature; it’s hard not to given the movies origins but in this case it really is a well made but dumb monster movie. I gather that the original folk legend the film is based on goes much the same way; it’s a parable on the dangers of wealth not being shared rather than a searing critique on a totalitarian regime. The monster turning on the people is more to do with that being a convention of the genre rather than any sort of social commentary.

Oh, and in case you haven’t gathered, this is a foreign movie with subtitles. So of course, the Americans remade it; it’s called Galgameth.


1: Seriously. The pair eventually escaped, by seeking political asylum with the Americans during a business trip to Vienna back in 1986. Shin Sang-ok changed his name to Simon Sheen, and went on to produce the 3 Ninjas series of kids martial arts movies. They have Hulk Hogan in them, which is all you really need to know.

2: Kenpachiro Satsuma, no less, the chap who played Godzilla from 1971 to 1995. The costume itself was produced by the legendary Toho Studios, the firm that produced all the original Godzilla movies.

3: Those aren’t spoilers by the way, that’s how monster movies are supposed to work.

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Categories: Geek, Movies, Reviews
  1. Paragraph Film Reviews
    February 17, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Holy balls dude, how did you manage to get a copy of this? Been trying to hunt one down in the UK for a while now (strange obsession with N Korea).

    • February 17, 2012 at 1:02 pm

      I borrowed a friend’s copy, though a quick look on Google tells me an english subtitled version is on Youtube.

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