Wednesday, 23 May 2012

North Korean Godzilla

Directed by Shin Sang-ok and Chong Gon Jo(1) in North Korea (1985), Pulgasari is quite an odd addition to the "cult film" scene. Its probably the most well known film made in North Korea that isn't a documentary about how awful it is and can be legally purchased in the West. Well sort of actually you have to buy Japanese export DVD's of the film with English subtitles and in the American friendly NTSC format. Also the DVD menu isn't in English (at least not on my copy) so good luck finding the play button if you can't read Japanese. In addition to enjoying a respectable position on most international lists of weird films the Pulgasari is one of those films that's more well known for its behind the scenes on set antics. But unlike in Hollywood were much of the scandal and gossip revolves around the top billing star failing their rehabilitation program, or possibly leaking plot spoilers in an interview, or falling out with the director, Pulgasari's behind the camera antics are much darker as they involve international kidnapping.

If you've heard of Pulgasari before then you're probably already familiar with what I'm about to say, but for those who don't and for reference I'll give a brief recap. One of the two directors of film Shin Sang-ok -perhaps Americans will know him from his work in the 90's under the name Simon Sheen giving the world such classics as the 3 Ninja's sequels and Galgameth which is the same film as Pulgasari only in English and with white people cast- was a South Korean national, and quite well known for the films he made in the Republic of Korea. This was in the 70's decades before the Sunshine policy when both Korea's where Dictatorships and any connections with the other Korea was strictly off limits. So did Shin do a Dresnok and defect? well not quite he along with his ex wife Choi Eun-Hee were kidnap from Hong Kong in 1978, it seems that the pair had quite an influential fan club up North, the President of which was none other then recently deceased Kim "Dear Leader" Jong Il son of the then Kim "Eternal President" Il Sung.

Before taking on the burden of both Party and State, Kim Jong Il spent many years working in the North Korean film industry. Oh and yes North Korea has a film industry, it’s quite active from what I can gather, and they also have a robust animation and comics (Manwha) industry (2).  Kim Jong Il was quite a mystery but one thing known for certain was that he loved films, rumours about him having the largest DVD collection in the world, and to have watched Team America persist but are hard to verify. Though he did work very closely with North Korea's film industry and even wrote several books about its importance in building party ideology (well his name is on the cover anyway) for Pulgasari he's credited as producer (to be fair he at least dressed like one and he would have no problem securing funding or filming permission) and it appears his ability to get a project done extended past his regimes borders as Shin and Choi's kidnappings showed.

Not exactly your typical mugshot from Amnesty Internationals wall of political prisoners is it?

 The pair were abducted help fulfil Kim's dreams of a vibrant and popular film industry to rival Hollywood.  Apparently he also wanted to get them to reconcile as he disproved of their divorce, and to his "credit" they did actually remarry, and then teamed up to escape together in 86 a year after this film was released. So I guess it wasn’t all bad, swings and roundabouts and all that. Before moving on I will say this, the life of Choi and Shin would make for a very interesting film, it already has romance, drama, tension, espionage, international locations and  a 50 ft Monster. The trailer would practically make itself.

Pulgasari (sometimes translated as Bulgasari) is commonly known on the internet as the Korean Godzilla, hence my title.And on the internet it has become something of trend to recap and ridicule the film mostly because its North Korean and was made for and by Kim Jong Il. I personally don't have a problem  with that, the man did hold people against there will and orchestrate and international incident on what amounts to a fans wish fulfilment. But what does irk me is that much of the mockery stems from them completely missing the point. There's a fan theory that the film is not so secretly mocking Kim Jong Il or at least the system his father ran, that doesn't really hold much water if know anything about Marxism, Korean history and the official ideology of North Korea (at the time). But I'll get into that a little later.

 This "fan" interpretation is also hampered by how Kim was clearly very active in this films production. So hopeful was Kim to make this film a success that he actually got the company that did the effects for the Godzilla films Toho studios to do most of the effects work for the monster scenes and Pulgasari (the monster) is played by Kenpachiro Satsuma who was Godzilla (1984- 95). Now  the significance of this co-production may not be obvious now but at the time this was a very big deal. Japan due to its history of brutal colonisation of Korea has become the "old" enemy of the Korean people, in there culture and to this day the relationship between Japan and South Korea are very strained obviously the DPRK's aggressive championing of Korean culture plus Japan's close ties to its other big enemy the USA mean that Pyongyang and Tokyo like each other even less. So to get such an extensive collaboration in 1985 especially when the son of the nations leader was attached to the project is quite an achievement. It also improved the set pieces and effects of the film into the bargain, though it does make the scenes that weren't made with Toho look a bit amateurish and underfunded. There is a rather infamous scene that's supposed to show and army marching side by side with Pulgasari which is accomplished by having the actors march across a screen projection.

To be honest I personally don't mind if a film with limited funding has limited and cheap effects, and lets be honest this may not have been the famine years but North Korea still wasn't swimming in money. Though if a film cost a lot of money I do expect to see evidence of the budget on the screen. Anyway despite being a film about a man in a rubber suit stomping on miniature cities Pulgasari has a pretty interesting storyline to justify the miniature stomping and extra chasing. Pulgasari is about a a monster from Korean folk lore whom grows when he eats Iron and befriends a poor daughter (Ami) of the deceased Blacksmith that created him out of rice (naturally). I quite like the part were Pulgasari is discovered by Ami and her brother, in lazy films with a magical companion the creature befriends our heroes straight away for no reason, here he eats there tools till his the size of a small child then leaves and ignores them when they try to talk it into coming back. It only returns because its hungry and it only fights the villainous army because they have iron and keep rudely attacking it. After a few minutes of this it does start bonding with Ami and her ragtag rebel friends.

Much of the confusion with the films message and believe in hidden satire comes from the fight scenes between Pulgasari and the armies of the King. A lot of the reviews/humorous recaps for some reason believe that the King represent Capitalism and Pulgasari is the KWP/Revolution. This is despite the fact that we are clearly in Feudal Korea and the "capitalists" are clearly given Feudal titles like King. In fact given the time period not only does Capitalism not exist on the Korean peninsula it doesn't exist anywhere in the world. Capitalism didn't start becoming globally dominant until the late 1700's when the American and the French Revolutions encouraged uprisings and movements that weakened and pushed aside the old Aristocracies whom ruled because they were born to rule, and replaced them with the "social climbing Merchants" you know industrialists and productive land owners, Marx called the Capitalist ruling class Bourgeoisie (hint its French) for a reason. You know who is a representation of Capitalism? Pulgasari yes I'm serious the giant rubber lizard with bull horns is the Monopoly man. This becomes abundantly clear at the end of the film.

Unfortunately while the concept of the film aimed high its costuming and choreography department either failed to deliver or took the easy way out and aimed low. Costumes sometimes look plasticky, the swords and spears wobble a bit and the human on human fights are terrible, confusing and ridiculously quick. Though they do improve as the film goes on and some of the fire and cannon effects impress. Though to be honest I'm not here for the Peasants Revolt, this is after all a Kaiju film, no one watches Godzilla vs King Kong to watch the Japanese Self Defence Force mill about in Tokyo's suburbs  so why should Pulgasrai be any different? Fortunately Toho did a very good job on there end making the stomping and growling look..... well not realistic obviously but quite exciting too watch. I also liked how despite using 16th century weapons technology the King's Generals are able to catch out the rebels and come close to destroying Pulgasari by clever planning.

 But not quite, SPOILER ALERT!!! the 50 ft monster kicks the kings arse, destroys his palace and leads the people to Victory! and then the credits stubbornly refuse to roll. This is were that Pulgasari=Capitalism symbolism is made abundantly clear. Instead of leaving an awaiting to be summoned again when needed as other "good" Kaiju stars did like Gamera (the giant fire breathing tortoise, who also defends the earth from aliens) no instead he demands that his newly freed serf friends get back to work giving him tributes of Iron to feed. This means the serfs are now the free Proletariat and they've exchanged status oppression for just economic oppression. This leaves the new socially down trodden a choice either give up all there Iron they need for tools and thus starve or go out an Imperialist crusade against the world to take other peoples iron to feed there new master. And yes they do outright say that is there choice in the subtitles so I don't see why so many are confused about the films message, this is as blatant as Battleship Potemkin. Pulgasari was an ally of Revolution only to become a new form of tyranny only somewhat  improved on the old order. This is how Marxism views history, the enlightenment period saw an alliance of "the Productive classes, against the unproductive" Peasants and workers fighting side by side with factory owners and merchants against Nobles, Bishops and Landlords. Of course it wasn't to long before the financial clout and education put the merchants and factory owners firmly in charge and they proved quick to forget about there old friends.

The possibility of going to war to steal foreign Iron comes straight from Lenin, "Imperialism is the highest stage of Capitalism" his 1917 work is just an in depth explanation why all these strong Capitalist nations were desperate to gobble up land all over the globe. Pulgasari's existence itself is a representation of the unsustainability of the Capitalist system. He will just eat Iron only to grow larger and demand more Iron over and over. It doesn't take an economics degree to know that isn't sustainable and will only be a matter of time before it breaks down.

Fortunately for the world the downtrodden Koreans reject both options and thanks to Ami's sacrifice and the magic of..... well magic Pulgasari is vanquished leaving the Korean people truly free hurray! And there we have it, I think if you're intrigued by the oddity of North Korea you should see this film, it is very strange a Godzilla film about Historical Materialism and Leninist theory. Its a bit dated and I don't just mean the special effects, after the Cold War and North Korea no longer had the USSR to get "friendship deals" North Korea has slowly but surely been editing out its Marxist past in favour of blatant Korean nationalism and military worship still it is at least a unique piece of cinematic history, and not a bad film considering some of its brothers in its "genre".

1: In North Korea all media is controlled by the State and expected to run in accordance with its ideology, which favours collaboration over individual gain. Apparently all fiction is written by committee.
2: In fact it’s quite likely that you’ve seen a film animated at least in part in North Korea and not realised it as many European animation companies have outsourced to China and North Korea.

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