Pulgasari (1985)

Yes, that’s a Japanese movie poster. But this is a North Korean movie.

Pulgasari is getting more and more attention as the years go by. Instead of it just being me ranting about it to whoever the heck will listen, even John Oliver is referencing it in his weekly monologues on HBO. Hell, the movie is even streaming on Amazon Prime. Not bad for the weirdest and most interesting picture to ever come out of North Korea. Yes, it’s a propaganda film. It also has an unusual backstory which involves kidnapping, deception, threats, and international espionage. But if you know anything about Pulgasari, you likely know all this too. So I’m not going to talk about this or that it’s a movie about a giant metal-eating monster that is better than the 1998 Godzilla movie with Matthew Broderick, because that movie is terrible.

Instead, I want to talk about the meaning of the film. Pulgasari is intended as a propaganda piece; that’s to be expected. All North Korean pictures are propaganda, even the action film Ten Zan (which isn’t nearly as good as Pulgasari). Most are dramas, which is why the giant monster movie tends to be…well, the giant monster in the room when discussing North Korean cinema. And the plot covers an uprising as the joyful, perfect peasants rise up against the (ostensibly capitalist) government to overthrow it with supernatural help in the name of the masses.

Unfortunately for the Kim dynasty, there are some problems with their approach which actually undercut their dictatorial communist ideal. First, the peasants rise to take down a despot…a despot who is a petty and vain man, who uses military might to subject the peasants to heavy taxation and near starvation…a despot who looks nothing like the Kim family physically but certainly covers them in character. North Korea is ruled by a vain leader who uses military might to keep the populace in a state of near starvation and subservience. Whoever wrote the picture might have intended for it to be a metaphor for throwing off the shackles of capitalism and foreign influence, but it’s just as easy to see this as a metaphor for overthrowing and casting out the Kim family dynasty in favor of a benevolent anarchy. Good job there, dude.

And then there is the decrying of the expansion of the communist ideal as well as the tearing down of the North Korean military’s influence. Near the end of the film, the blacksmith’s daughter who has been directing Pulgasari declares that now the peasants will be forced to give up their livelihoods to feed the enormous beast and then invade other nations for their resources. She eventually chooses to die to bring down the monster and save the peasants from unchecked expansion. While Pulgasari may have been intended to mean the military-industrial complex of western society, it’s just as easy to take it as an indictment of the weight of the North Korean military pressing down on their communities as well as a criticism of the unchecked expansion of the people’s revolt, ie. communism. After all, the USSR and PRC wanted to pursue communist revolutions in nations around the world. Yet here is the peasant declaring to the war machine that she does not want the peasants to have to invade the rest of the world and instead wishes for peace in a country without said war machine.

So what you have is a film intended to serve as communist propaganda from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea which could just as easily be interpreted as an anti-DPRK metaphor opposing their massive military and the despotic rule of the Kim family. How’s that for a reading of the picture?

I’m also curious about the influence of Chinese film on the picture, because there is a lot in the stage combat that reminds of Hong Kong martial arts films of the 1970s. The choreography, the camera angles, and the use and types of sound effects feels like the early ’70s of the Shaw Brothers studio more than the samurai cinema that Toho would have been producing.

Pulgasari is a picture full of surprises. Yes, it’s not the best picture out there, but for giant monster movie fans or fans of weird and cult cinema, it’s worth tracking down if only to say you’ve seen it.

Also, it’s a Japanese movie trailer to go with the poster! Woo!

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