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

A Spastic in North Korea

North of the 38th Parallel. It is one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, and isolated corners of the world. Nobody knows what really goes on in there. What is their culture and society really like? What is their population? How does their economy function? Nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out. It must be run by Oompa-Loompas.

That's our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

That’s our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

Seriously though, North Korea is one of the strangest places on earth. It’s another planet! It is a fascinatingly hidden, cult-ish culture shrouded beneath an overcast sky and the beaming benevolent portraitures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il [and now Kim Jong-un]. All media is government controlled and they are suspected of countless Human Rights violations. Even if you get in, you better watch your step and still you’ll only ever see and hear what North Korea wants you to see and hear. Great difficulties arise in any attempts to document and fairly assess this 46,528 square mile mystery. Difficulties, yes, but some have attempted nevertheless. The Vice Guide to Travel did an excellent piece on North Korea (watch it here), and there have been many more incredible amateur docs, but Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger took a slightly different approach with his Borat-esque documentary The Red Chapel (2009).

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

Brügger’s film would take both himself and two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, deep into Pyongyang under the guise of a theater troupe that would be performing a traditional Danish comedy play as part of a cultural exchange for the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In actuality, Mads really only seeks to expose North Korea as the soulless dictatorship he believes it is.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

 

Another twist is that Jacob Nossell is a self-proclaimed “spastic” (he has a severe speech impediment and occasionally requires a wheelchair). This twist serves several purposes. Firstly Jacob can say almost anything in Danish because between the language and his vocal distortions he will be unintelligible to the North Koreans who will be examining all of the footage they take. The second purpose is to test the North Korean rumor that infants born with genetic maladies are euthanized (as reported by several physicians who have defected). Mads suspects the Red Chapel’s embarrassingly bad show is allowed to continue because the North Koreans seek to dispel this grim rumor and so Jacob and the Red Chapel’s show is to be used as propaganda. Brügger does admit that he is probably guilty of using Jacob for his own manipulative means as well.

Like a spastic in North Korea we're wheelchair bound.

Like a spastic in North Korea we’re wheelchair bound.

The Red Chapel alternates between informative tourism and comical rehearsals where the North Koreans gradually deflate Denmark’s play and replace the entire story with even more convolutions, bizarrities, and pro-North Korean ideological propaganda. The irony is that the Red Chapel was compelled to agree not to incorporate any ideological or political themes in their performance and yet by the end of the movie the Red Chapel performers must conclude their show declaring, “One heart. One mind. One Korea. Together we fight. Together we die.” Another big alteration made to their show is the diminished role of Jacob. He must be in a wheelchair the whole show and only communicate via whistle squeaks while Simon does most of the act himself, and at the end of the show he must stand up (but not speak) so the audience will think he was only pretending to be handicapped. In this topsy-turvy world where Simon and Jacob must don Korean uniforms and regurgitate propaganda for a “cultural exchange,” they are constantly micro-managed by their DPRK tour guides who must evaluate, deliberate, and confer amongst each to other to ascertain the possible political themes of every move they make. For instance, what does the “pussy” in “pussy-cat” truly denote? Might it be dangerous to the North Korean government?

Mrs. Pak.

Mrs. Pak.

Several humorous, subversively subtle and ballsy events pepper the movie just to keep the comedy going. At the revered statue of deceased but eternal president, Kim Il-Sung, Mads Brügger requests to read a silly poem as a (rather absurd) sign of respect and as an offering to the great leader in the spirit of cultural exchange. They also present a pizza paddle to be given to Kim Jong-Il. For all the humor and fun being had, whether Simon is leading an impromptu rendition of “Hey, Jude” on guitar, or Jacob is making insightful quips regarding the vacuous horrors of all the emotionless enthusiasm, what really got me about The Red Chapel were the moments of naked humanity. Most of the evil rumors are never put to rest one way or another, but we do see real people. Mrs. Pak, their tour guide, is one of the most fascinating and compelling people on the screen. She is only allowed to smile and be happy (and keep the boys out of trouble). She cries at the statue of Kim Il-Sung, but Brügger tacitly wonders if she is crying out of love, out of fear, or for memories of pains past. After only a few hours of knowing Jacob, Mrs. Pak is embracing him and calling him “like my son…more than my son.” Tearfully she says ‘it is not mother’s work to send a boy like him away’. There appears to be much conflict within this woman at times. I found Mrs. Pak to be more fascinating an example than all the ghostly vacant streets and empty shops of Pyongyang. Does she know she lives under an oppressive government? Would she call it that? Does she truly know what the rest of the world is like? Is she brainwashed or is she really just that gung-ho? In a land where the only images you are allowed to see are propagandistic, can you not still choose to love it of your own volition? I found her presence and unwitting contribution to the film to be incredible. She genuinely wants to show the Red Chapel all that North Korea has to offer, but is her devotion derived out of cultural pride or fear? We may never know.

Cheery.

Cheery.

The constant lying and games of deception—on both the part of the filmmaker and of North Korea—takes its toll. Jacob has a nervous breakdown early on. During a gigantic celebration (that condemns the United States for attacking them in 1950 unprovoked, of course) Mads and Jacob—pushed in his wheelchair by the motherly Mrs. Pak—wind up marching down the square and having to cheer. Jacob alone defies this command and moans complaints unintelligibly. It is an extremely surreal and tense moment that puts the beads of sweat on Mads’ forehead. Beyond Borat, there is far more danger if their agenda is discovered and their charade is uncovered. They are mocking possibly one of the most dangerous, dehumanizing, and restrictive governments in the world. We never see the death camps or horrific prisons for political threats, but the possibility remains and the danger is always there.

Today we will march up and down the square!

Today we will march up and down the square!

On a tour of a school, the boys see doll-like children performing robotic paroxysms all to the glory of their leader. Il-Sung’s and Jong-Il’s portraits eerily hang in every room just to remind everyone that everything is all doubleplusgood in DPRK. Big Brother is watching. They smile and clap as long as the foreigner’s camera is pointed at them. The children practice and perform acts of programmed artistic perfection reminiscent of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. When anyone is asked how they are or how anything is, the response is always one of hyperbolic ecstasy and joyous exaltation. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea no one is unhappy. North Korea is always portrayed as the most prosperous nation in the world. Everyone is in unison and the parades of thousands are never out of step. If Kim Jong-Il is as big a film-lover as is understood (so much so that he kidnapped director Sang-ok Shin and his wife and held him hostage to make movies for North Korea) then I just bet he’s a fan of The Stepford Wives. Watch excerpts from their famed Mass Games and you get a glimpse of their frighteningly awesome precision. People are pixels here.

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

As with The Vice Guide to Travel: North Korea [and their several followups with Dennis Rodman under Jong-un’s rule now], one never gets to see what lies behind certain doors. Movements are carefully planned out and must never deviate from the government controlled itinerary. One only gets to see what North Korea wishes to be seen and that is always maintained to be the very best. The sad, twisted irony of it all is that if what they show is North Korea’s best it still leaves much to be desired. There is a hollowness and a stifled melancholy about this country in its all-too flattering representation of itself. Perhaps I am revealing too much personal bias as an American [and one who lives in South Korea]. Coming from a country where differences are relished and celebrated and where many cultures and perspectives are encouraged and appreciated and where it is considered strange if everyone is the same and there is no dissenting voice, it is quite a culture shock to get a glimpse into North Korean society. Maybe we’re all just misinformed and it’s not bad or wrong at all, but whatever it is, it is the opposite of the American ideal of individualism.

The boys pose with some locals.

The boys pose with some locals.

I enjoyed The Red Chapel immensely. It may not offer more than a familiar peek into North Korea like some other documentaries, but it has a personality all its own. Following Mads, Simon, Jacob, and Mrs. Pak around in this dystopic world is worth the price of admission. For anyone interested in North Korea this is a must-see comedy documentary.

Creepy.

Come to me, my children.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 16, 2011