Pulgasari Ain’t Sorry (longer version)

Where do we begin? There is actually quite a bit that can be said about the North Korean film Pulgasari (1985). First off, it is famous for being directed by Shin Sang-ok who was a prominent South Korean filmmaker until he and his wife were kidnapped by North Korea at Kim Jong Il’s behest. He was commanded to make great films for The Dear Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A hostage director forced to make bad movies. Bananas. It’s like Misery.

"Rawr" means I love you in Pulgasari.

“Rawr” means I love you in Pulgasari.

Pulgasari has been compared to the Godzilla franchise quite a bit and there are definitely an abundance of similarities (Kenpachiro Satsuma, most famous for playing Godzilla in several movies, actually plays Pulgasari). It  also has some elements of Der Golem (1920) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). He also looks a little bit like the monster from Night of the Demon (1957). Unfortunately for Pulgasari the title just isn’t quite as memorable.

Here’s the set up: starving peasant farmers are being oppressed by an evil despot king. Ironic…especially considering that several people have stated Pulgasari is meant to be pro-North Korea propaganda. The despot king is allegedly meant to represent capitalism. I’m not so convinced and actually wonder if that was just director Sang-ok’s excuse and he’s really making a slam against the Kim family. Anyway, government officials tell the peasants that they need to make iron weapons for them because “some bandits are causing a ruckus at a certain location.” These bandits are never seen. The peasants say they don’t have any iron so the government makes them use their own farming equipment to make weapons. Hmm…a nepotist tyrant who spends money on weapons to fight imaginary foes while his starving people are forced to glorify their ruler. Sounds kinda familiar.

Pots and pans are all the peasants have and the government murders them to take them. They even run over an old lady with a cart. We get it! The king is evil.

P-p-p-p-puppy power!

P-p-p-p-puppy power!

Ami (Chang Son Hui) is a lovely peasant girl who does her best to hold the movie together when the monster’s not on screen. The story doesn’t really start until Ami’s old blacksmith uncle is captured by bad soldiers and starved in prison. Ami sneaks him food, but instead of eating the ball of rice, he molds it into a toy dinosaur and dies. The figurine comes to Ami who accidentally sticks herself and bleeds on it, bringing it to life (♫ Suddenly Seymour!). Soon the creature starts eating needles. Finding it cute, Ami and her brother go to sleep with it. By morning it has grown from a plastic toy into a latex puppet.

Cut to a laughing executioner about to behead Ami’s love interest, Inde…for some reason. Just as the blade is coming down, the executioner is attacked by a terrifying rubber puppet who saves the day. Cue the squirrelly Saturday-morning-cartoon music. Pulgasari eats the executioner’s sword and we learn that the rice-monster grows bigger when he eats metal. Makes sense. Soon Pulgasari developes from a hand-puppet into a small child (because midgets are euthanized) in a rubber suit. Pulgasari then wanders off and we don’t see him for a while. Cut to a scene of the government beating an old woman.

This movie has a hard time settling on a tone.

We learn that some people have been captured. I think Ami’s brother is one of them. Doesn’t matter. Inde leads an attack on the prison where they are kept, but they get there too late and—in a scene that Attack of the Clones must have ripped off—the folks they were going to rescue just die right then. A battle ensues and the governor is killed. This gets the attention of the bad king. The government elite forces really suck and the battles feel reminiscent of the ewoks fighting the stormtroopers in Return of the Jedi. Also the sound effects of the swords clanging are hilarious.

pulgasari self control

They say it’s not just the fat content. It’s the sugars mixed in with the fat.

A man-sized Pulgasari appears and rescues Ami from bad guys and then they feed him weapons to make him grow big and strong. Eat all your iron, Pulga. Soon he’s a giant, towering over all the people—much like Godzilla but with a slightly more gargoyle look. Clearly this is bad news for the evil king. The scenes where the baddies try to logically deduce the creature’s weakness is like watching Adam West decipher a Frank Gorshin riddle, but naturally no matter how random or absurd it always works. They first try to trap Pulgasari in a giant wooden cage by capturing Ami and threatening to kill her if he does not comply. Ami pleads with Pulgasari not to listen and thus a short-lived 3 Laws of Robotics head game ensues. He goes in the cage and then they set it on fire. Since the cage is wood and Pulgasari is magic, naturally the cage simply burns away and frees Pulgasari to rampage once more.

New plan: get a crazy lady to exorcise the blacksmith’s spirit out of Pulgasari so he’ll fall in a hole and they can put rocks on him. Again, amazingly it works.

Later some dying guy informs Ami that Inde has been captured. It was at this point in the film where I realized that we never see anyone get captured. We only hear about it. Minor detail, but I notice things like that. I wonder if director, Sang-ok, could not bring himself to film another abduction after having lived through a real one. The memories! Sure enough Inde has been captured and they hang him. Inde’s only been peripherally involved in the story so we’re not too distraught by his permanent absence, but Ami sure is. Ami releases Pulgasari again by cutting herself over the rocks where he’s buried. This alarms the bad guys once more so they invent a weapon to stop Pulgasari once and for all. It is the greatest destructive invention of all time. With it they “can kill 104 Pulgasaris” and take over the world! The weapon is your standard cannon. . . oh, and it doesn’t even scratch Pulgasari.

Oh, man. Did I do that? I was so wasted last night.

Oh, man. Did I do that? I was so wasted last night.

Pulgasari destroys the king’s palace and squishes him. Hurray. The peasants are saved. But now there’s no more iron for Pulgasari to eat. Ami begs Pulgasari to go away and disappear rather than eat their farm tools. She knows that they will have to invade other countries and take over the whole world to feed him iron forever. Naturally. Finally Ami tricks him into eating a funeral bell (I think). Pulgasari turns into stone and then explodes. A tiny Pulgasari emerges from the rubble and transforms into a blue ball of light that goes into Ami…who is dead now for some reason. The end.

Pulgasari is your typical giant suitmation monster movie. Standard kaiju. Nothing special. The story is actually a bit more complex than your average Godzilla movie and the period setting gives it a nice mythical flavor. Pulgasari is a good guy fighting a corrupt government in order to help poor peasant farmers. He’s like a rubber reptile Robin Hood. Not a bad premise. It’s not dumber than most of the movies in the genre, but something just never felt right for me. The original Godzilla (1954) was a legitimate film with political undertones and clever metaphors. The rest of the franchise was silly, but most of them had the spirit of fun about them along with hokey environmentalist messages. Gamera (1965) and its sequels were also colorful and fun. The British film, Gorgo (1961), was dopey but I still liked it. Pulgasari has a decent development and cool costumes, but it also has yucky colors, a bad score, and instead of the spirit of fun it has the spirit of North Korea. Eww. It just feels kind of oppressive and grim. It never pulled me in. At times it takes itself too seriously and then at others it’s just too cartoony. I still enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as some other kaiju flicks.

The American Godzilla (1998) gets a lot of flack and I think I know why. Despite the story actually being more complex and the characters being more developed than most Godzilla films and other knockoffs, it just does not have the same feel. Something is missing. Pulgasari is kind of like that. And you what? I don’t necessarily hate either of them. Watch Pulgasari. It ain’t that bad.

Hell's bells, son! It's original artwork! Yes, I realize Kim Jong-Un was not in power at the time this movie was made, but perhaps its legacy still haunts him to this day.

Hell’s bells, son! It’s original artwork! Yes, I realize Kim Jong-Un was not in power at the time this movie was made, but perhaps its legacy still haunts him to this day.

I’ve got to wonder why they needed to go through all the trouble of kidnapping a foreign director to make a cheese-ball Godzilla ripoff. I’m pretty sure anyone could have directed this film. It’s not particularly arty or even that good. Maybe he botched it on purpose. Shin Sang-ok directed several movies for militant executive producer Kim Jong Il, but this is the most famous one outside of North Korea. I’m not convinced it’s chiefly a propagandistic movie. North Korea fascinates me. As a firm believer in the anthropological and cultural significance of movies from around the world and from different times I find Pulgasari rather telling. Kim Jong Il may have produced it and maybe he loved it, but I must say I expected a little more polish and professionalism from the people who brought us the Arirang Grand Mass Games and 4 year old cello virtuosos.

Check out article on The Red Chapel “documentary” in North Korea.

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle May 6, 2013.

Picture references:

http://www.zekefilm.org/2013/01/17/film-review-pulgasari/

http://areaoftheunwell.blogspot.kr/2009/08/any-old-irony.html

http://shelf3d.com/Search/movies%2Bto%2Bdownload%2BPlayListIDPL12q-6co85IFOXbnTGvINiFOtAByJiH-4

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode One – the first episode

You know it’s a crime. You love movies and you have your opinions. This means anytime you don’t like something people get to call you a snob. Can we help it if we see a lot of movies? Well, probably, but who would want to?

What follows are the last several films I have watched. Perhaps, just to show that I do take in a fairly wide range of cinema. Perhaps something more sinister. Perhaps you’ll never know and me and your cat are in cahoots. They are listed in ascending order of what I thought of them. Kindly interact with this post if you feel I have misordered the movies.

Bad:

“We’re such positive role models for impressionable tween girls.”

It’s yet another sad day for vampire and werewolf movies everywhere. The film I thought the least of was Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I (2011). For clarity’s sake I have been faithfully watching every Twilight film with Rifftrax (God bless you, MST3K guys, wherever you are). We get it, Stephanie Meyer. You don’t like sex or Native Americans. Much has already been said about the schmaltz factor and the potentially detrimental ideas it puts into susceptible preteen minds. These movies are about as entertaining as watching fake high school kids try to talk to each other. So this entry is nonstop laughably bad and ultimately not much happens, but it is the closest Twilight movie to actually feeling almost like it might want to be trying to consider being a horror movie, but it still doesn’t work. I really cannot find these movie’s appeal. But then, they are not made for me. I did almost like that one werewolf chick in it though. I like a strong jawline.

All of the other films on my list I actually did like on some level. So do not be alarmed if any film should be listed so close to Breaking Dawn.

Meh and/or Misguided:

“So this is what happens when you eat the yellow snow…”

I like Frank Zappa’s music and his whole persona. That being said, I found 200 Motels (1971) to be an endurance test. I definitely respect it’s surreality and hyperactive oddness, but there are times when the product was just a little too draining and sloppily assembled. Or maybe that was Zappa’s intent all along. If the theme is all about how touring can make you crazy, I must say I would expect more from Mr. Zappa’s presentation of this thesis. He is a talented weirdo and there are some pretty solid bits speckled throughout and a lot of good songs (if you like Frank Zappa). It’s a purposely grotesque oddity and bizarro time capsule that I don’t know who exactly I would recommend it to. It stars the Mothers of Invention, Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Pretentious? Moi?!”

I had heard of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) before I had seen it, but name only. That was actually more set up than I’m sure the movie would have liked me to have. It’s a movie about a relationship (and that is all I am willing to say regarding the curious plot). It’s not that I mind that the story is purposefully difficult to follow. It’s more that I somehow felt cheated. I felt as though it were leading me toward something concrete and the initial elusiveness was just a frill. It’s not a bad movie by any means. It kept me interested for the most part. Juliet Binoche (Three Colors: Blue, Chocolat) gives a fantastic performance and the beautiful Tuscan scenery is elegant and rich. Her co-star is decidedly a little more weak and in a movie with only two characters it can stand out. I admire some of the odd choices made, but a film that wants to remind me this much of Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset really ought to be better than them.

“This whole thing might even make Lewis Carroll uncomfortable.”

This next one I had wanted to see for sometime. Louis Malle (Au Revoir Les Enfants, My Dinner With Andre) is s strange director and Black Moon (1975) is always credited as his most unusual. As a fan of Zazie dans le métro (1960) I had to see how this movie could be weirder. Trust me. It’s weirder. Minimal dialogue and plot and lots of unkempt animals. A girl wanders through a strange landscape full of gas masks, tanks, naked children, and rotund talking unicorns. The film is very much inspired by Lewis Carroll, but it has more of a twisted edge in that it seems to be treating female puberty as the proverbial Wonderland. I can’t say that I enjoyed it a lot, but I was transfixed by it’s strangeness and the sick, inexplicable turns it was willing to take. If you like badger murder and teens breastfeeding nasty old ladies then this is the film for you.

“So…women are the devil? I get it.”

Blue Valentine (2010) was one that got a lot of praise and I can see why. Ryan Gosling’s Academy Award nominated performance certainly isn’t the only thing going for it. This delicate indie film follows the deterioration of a relationship and it does a pretty good job. My only real beef with the film is that it couldn’t surprise me. Friends told me it was amazing and that I should see it and I could tell from the synopsis exactly what it was going to be. Sure enough. It was. It’s still well acted and well-constructed (cleverly bouncing back and forth between past and present) but it just couldn’t surprise me. Not that I’m a baby and need to be surprised all the time. It was sad and inevitable and in then end I just felt bad for the guy. Everyone gets dealt a bad hand here. Blue Valentine is not the sort of movie I would generally gravitate toward, but it’s well done and a great anti-romance flick. I like depressing films, but I’ve seen better. Watch it instead of Breaking Dawn. And watch Blue Velvet instead of this. What the heck.

Guilty Pleasures:

“The screen can hardly contain all of our pathos!”

I don’t know why I keep watching old Godzilla movies. They’re all the same and I’ve seen it a hundred times already and the first one was really the only one that was a real movie. Maybe they just make me appreciate Pulgasari more. It’s some sort of sick tradition. It’s why we keep watching James Bond movies. Most of them are bad, but they’re fun and nostalgic. All this to say I watched Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) recently. It’s more of the same. Big dumb rubber monsters trash Japanese cities. In a word: awesome. There are three basic plots to a Godzilla movie: Godzilla is a bad guy; Godzilla is a good guy; Godzilla is tricked/talked into being a good guy. This time Mothra has to convince Godzilla and Rodan to stop fighting and be the good guys. After much monster political debate on the merits of protecting humanity, they agree and team up to fight Ghidrah, a hideous hydra dragon from outer space (unnervingly with no arms). My one complaint with this movie (and it’s a big one) is that Mothra never metamorphosizes out of his larval stage. Maybe they were afraid of having too many flying monsters. Oh, but the Twin Fairy chicks are back…but the Mothra song is different and sucks now.

“You should see what I taught them to do with their blowholes.”

George C. Scott teaching dolphins to speak English (that’s right) only to be sabotaged by corrupt government officials who want to use the English speaking dolphins to blow up the president should be a comedy. The dolphins actually sound more like balloons getting the air let out of them when they do vocalize. The Graduate director, Mike Nichols, does what he can with the ludicrous premise of Day of the Dolphin (1973), but how could this be saved? It’s loopy and stupid, but I strangely liked it. George C. Scott (Patton) and Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) are talking to dolphins in a cockamamie story about the military raping science for sadistic ends. For all it’s foolishness I found myself enjoying it and the score by Georges Delerue is actually really great. Agent Flipper to the rescue!

Getting Better:

“Despite each segment being extremely short I doubt this generation will have the patience to sit through all of them.”

Life in a Day (2011) is an interesting experiment. It is compiled from footage sent from all over the world, but all shot on the same day. I suppose it does document a great deal and people in the future will be able to look to this film and see what the world was like in a more accessible way than say Baraka. I like it for the experimental reasons and for what the future may be able to get from it, but the way technology is going, the point might be moot. We already document everything. Maybe the novelty of it being shinier and in one place will make it more convenient than scouring youtube. It was enjoyable, but I wonder what stuff was cut. How much unpleasantness that went on that day did we miss? All in all, it’s a noble documentary effort that I will still unfairly compare to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.

“Shouldn’t we be under ‘Guilty Pleasures?'” —“Probably, but SHHHH!”

Two of the most awesome movies in history collided. Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece Seven Samurai has crashed into Star Wars and we end up with Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). George Peppard (The A-Team), Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Richard Thomas (The Waltons) and John Saxon (Enter the Dragon) star in this B-movie epic. Almost no explanations and already we get thrust into a space aged retelling of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, with fitting nods to these movies that preceded it. The people of the planet Akir are called the Akira and George Peppard dresses like an old timey cowboy despite flying a spaceship. Not much character development. Only convoluted space fights. I will say this, despite all its laughable bits, it’s actually more imaginative than it needed to be. Instead of seven samurai, they get seven spaceships with different alien races in each of them, some of which are pretty interesting. I liked the Nestor and the Kelvin. Some notes: Richard Thomas’s spaceship looks like balls straight on (but like a uterus from above) and this movie has a lot of weird cleavage (from only one character). It’s no Star Crash or Ice Pirates, but it’s still a good space crap flick. So A Bug’s Life was a remake of a remake.

“Jack owes me crack.”

I am a fan of Conan O’Brien and Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011) is perhaps an appropriate documentary about him traveling around after being kicked off of NBC. He’s a desperate, sad, and tortured clown underneath that tall, orange wave. It has some truly funny bits and makes him more human. It may not be a perfect movie, but it will please fans of Conan’s antics. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is an intimate portrait of a man kicked around by an unfair network board, but with an addiction to entertain, and what that man can do when he has fame still following him. The scene where he’s belittling Jack McBrayer had me on the floor laughing.

Greatness Beckons:

“What stereotype? Every culture loves booze.”

When a ship carrying a cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky crashes off the shore of a parched Scottish village you know exactly what’s going to happen. Whiskey Galore! (1949) is a funny, breezy British comedy directed by Alexander Mackendrick (director of one of my favorite comedies, The Ladykillers with Alec Guinness). There are many humorous predicaments that arise, for instance the ship crashes on Sunday so they have to wait until Monday to get the booze so as not to break the Sabbath. The whole town banding together to hide the loot from nosey authorities might remind some folks of the more recent Waking Ned Devine. It’s a splendid, gentle comedy with a hilariously astute epilogue following a fun car chase. For those with a taste for sly British comedy, definitely watch this one.

“Have you seen ‘Puss’n’Boots?”

I like Pedro Almodóvar’s movies (All About My Mother, Volver), so I was used to his sneaky style of disguising information and hiding the truth until the appointed time, but even I was surprised by where The Skin I Live In (2011) went. I cannot reveal much, but it is a great and demented movie. Is this Almodóvar’s version of horror? It’s far more disturbing and subtle than most mainstream horror movies. Get a copy, invite friends over and tell them you’re watching an Antonio Banderas movie. Tell them nothing more and then watch their faces contort as they assemble the puzzle in their head. The Spanish The Skin I Live In keeps with the plastic-surgery-gone-awry film spirit along with the French Eyes Without a Face (1960) and the Japanese The Face of Another (1966).

“How is it half of our lives seem to unfold in a two-dimensional world?”

I am a huge admirer of Karel Zeman (The Stolen Airship, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen). He is a Czech filmmaker with an unhealthy obsession with stop-motion animation, and his bizarre, bold, and unrepentantly stylized use of special effects throughout his films are always innovative and dazzling. His satirical look at the Thirty Years War is quite funny, and maybe more focused and consistent than his previous features. The Jester’s Tale (1964) follows the picaresque exploits of a man swept away by the changing tides of a Europe at war with itself. Zeman portrays political alliances to be quite literally as fickle as the changing winds. It’s clever, funny, and the unique special effects are truly charming.

“She’s takin’ ’em off! Quick! Get the the firepole!”

Milos Forman is known for his American films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, but not many folks this far west get to see his work from his home country. The Czech film (another Czech film, I know), The Fireman’s Ball (1967) is a smart if simple comedy about, quite aptly, a fireman’s ball. More specifically a fireman’s ball where many things do not go right. Prizes for the raffle keep disappearing and no young ladies want to be a part of the beauty pageant—this leads the creepy, old fireman to approach the girls themselves and create many awkward moments. It may not make you laugh out loud the whole time, but it will keep a smile on your face. Another thing worth mentioning is that it was a cast of non-actors.

A Satisfying Zenith:

“Shoe’s untied.”

Stanley Kubrick should be a familiar name. He’s the mad genius behind movies like Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Eyes Wide Shut. Having seen most of his cannon, save for two of his earliest works, I was delighted to finally make acquaintance with Barry Lyndon (1975). This enchanting period epic stars Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon) as the eponymous Barry and features some absolutely gorgeous cinematography (revolutionary too in that Kubrick used a special lens and all natural lighting) as well as some intensely choreographed classical pieces by Handel, Schubert, Bach, Vivaldi, and others. This rise and fall of a no-account Irish vagabond is mesmerizing, if a bit cold, but maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. It feels like we are in an 18th century painting at times (The Mill and the Cross, anyone?). If you like your duels then you gotta see this one, and it’s battle scenes rival Full Metal Jacket (and maybe even Paths of Glory).

Almost done.

“Right this way, Mr. Samurai…Bwahahahaha!”

I saw Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) several years ago and was greatly impressed. It was a hypnotic, erotic, horror tale set in feudal Japan and truly much of its imagery was haunting. Kuroneko (1968) is a worthy accomplice. It is an atmospheric, seductive ghost story that has much more than meets the eye. It actually deals with a few feminist issues in a way, much like Kenji Mizoguchi in Ugetsu. Ghosts are murdering samurai and only one detective is brave enough to figure out why. It sounds simple, but he is compromised in more ways than one when he takes on the assignment. For those who like their horror to be sleek, spooky, and utterly beautiful to look at do not miss this movie. One thing: Tim Burton may have borrowed elements from this film—as well as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—for Batman Returns.

“California Dreamin’….”

I admit it. I need to see more Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046). But I don’t have to see more to know that I really loved Chungking Express (1994). From stem to stern you are looking at a sweet, cunning, impressionistic, romantic masterpiece. As folks shuffle in and out of a seedy diner we enter into their lives and watch their pain and longing for love. The characters, although very entertaining, have a certain reality to them. I found Faye Wong’s character in particular to be immensely adorable and appealing. Chungking Express may seem to treat romance like fast-food at times, but I still love how the mechanics of the movie work. It’s a real movie movie.

“Are we not men?”

Finally, the film I thought the most highly of that I saw recently was The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the BountyThe Hunchback of Notre Dame) stars as a mad scientist who is using evil science to accelerate animals’ evolution so that they may become weird hairy humans. This is my kind of movie. It’s got a wonderfully pulpy premise (courtesy of H.G. Wells), great set design, a scantily clad female, and Bela Lugosi looking like the “Pogs” guy. The mad scientist genre can be a great one and this might be one of the best (alongside the first two Frankenstein movies). A classic atmospheric pre-code horror flick with edge, uncomfortable bits, grim foreboding, and suspense. I couldn’t tell you more. The movie is great and I just loved it. It just gives me one more reason to believe that the 1930s were one of the best decades for American film.

For those who have still been curious about my movie tastes, perhaps this layout might clarify a few things. What were some of the last few films you saw and how would you rank them?