In light of the recent shitshow over Sony’s The Interview it only seems right to take on North Korea’s very own kaiju, Pulgasari! It’s one of the very few kaiju movies to also be a period piece, taking place in feudal Korea. It probably won’t surprise you that Pulgasari attempts and fails to be anti-capitalist propaganda (instead coming closer to satirizing Best Korea and Glorious Leader), but it might surprise you that they kidnapped a South Korean director to make it! No, seriously, Kim Jong-Il kidnapped director Shin Sang-ok, and his ex-wife, actress Chong Gon Jo, and held them captive for 8 years, forcing them to remarry and crank out seven films, including Pulgasari. It gets weirder: Toho’s Godzilla team (including Godzilla suit actor Kenpachirô Satsuma) did the special effects, presumably without being kidnapped. And one last blast of bizarreness: the movie ain’t bad. The highest rating most sources online give it is “so-bad-it’s-good,” but considering the insane circumstances, the movie turned out pretty damn solid. I feel kind of shitty enjoying Pulgasari because people were torn from their homes and held captive to make it, and North Korea’s whole situation is a totalitarian hellscape, but you’d probably make a good movie too if your life literally depended on it.
So grab some swords and shovels to munch on, make a little dog-bear-man out of rice (and maybe poop), and jam some sick snyths on your Casio, because I’m talkin’ about Pulgasari!
As per usual, I want to give you a taste of Pulgasari’s soundtrack. You can find the main theme here. Seeing as how North Korea doesn’t exactly have a booming entertainment industry, I wasn’t surprised when I couldn’t find anything about Pulgasari’s composer So Jong Gon. The soundtrack features a lot of traditional instrumentation, evoking feudal villages, untamed wilderness and brutal warlords: the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a samurai movie. But since Pulgasari was made in 1985, you better believe they dropped some icy, sick-ass synths in there too. Sometimes it works, sometimes it sounds hilarious. Seeing as how the movie hasn’t had any kind of official release, the audio and video quality is on par with what you’d get from a good-ish VHS bootleg. Definitely watchable, but the color’s kind of washed out, and the sound is a a bit buzzy and tinny. It seriously looks like an old print of a 60s or 70s era kaiju film.
The propaganda backfires immediately and hilariously. The movie opens with evil government thugs storming the heroes’ village and demanding they melt down all their farm tools and cooking utensils to make weapons for them. An oppressive dictatorship that starves its own people and forces them to build weaponry? What real world regime parallels that?
Our young hero Inde and his friends are imprisoned for conspiring to rob government storehouses, while his girlfriend Ami and her elderly blacksmith father are left behind. As soon as the government goons are gone, pops says “fuck the police” and gives everybody their stuff back. The thugs of course come to check up on them, and aren’t too geeked to see that all the iron they gathered up is mysteriously gone. When they ask the old man, he sarcastically suggests that a little Pulgasari monster must’ve creeped in over night and ate it all. Not surprisingly they beat the crap out of him and throw him in prison with Inde and his friends.
The old man refuses to eat in prison, even when his daughter and son try to bring him food. The guards shove them away from the jail, so they resort to throwing food through his window. The old man mushes the pulpy beige stuff in his hands, and I had to look up that it was rice. In the dead of night in his cell, he fashions a little dog-bear-man figurine. Out of the rice, right? Sure, maybe, except the figurine is dark brown and that rice was beige. Light beige at that.
Little doo-doo monster in hand, the old man says a prayer with his dying breath, commanding the tiny Pulgasari to save humanity in his place. His son and daughter take his body away to bury it the next day, and they find his little Pulgasari figure. Charmed by her father’s final loving gesture, Ami keeps the little critter with her sewing supplies. While sewing, Ami accidentally cuts herself and splashes a drop of blood onto Pulgarsari, who comes to life immediately. It comes across like something out of classic folklore… or Axe Cop.
Tiny Pulgasari is portrayed by a little person in a pretty decent looking creature suit on a really effective blown-up set. Pulgasari rolls around in a drawer and eats sewing needles. It’s cute without being sickeningly sweet, and the goofier synth music works perfectly for his antics. It’s a fun, rare treat seeing the man-in-a-suit technique used to create a tiny monster instead of a huge one, and it works really well. The only other example I can think of off hand are the teeny twin fairies from Mothra running around. Here’s the Pulgster munchin’ on needles:
Also, that’s not just any man in a suit portraying little Pulgasari, it’s none other than “Little Man” Machan, a former midget pro wrestler from Japan who also portrayed my boy Minya!
Ami and her brother think Pulgasari is the bee’s taint, and even tuck him into their bed when they turn in for the night. Bad news the next day though: the baddies have decided to execute Inde. Luckily, Pulgasari is on the case, and grown to little person-size thanks to the previous night’s sewing needle-based Fourth Meal. Pulg-meister is accompanied by more wacky adventure synth music as he stops a public execution(!) by taking a big chomp out of the executor’s sword, and then his fucking face.
He frees Inde and then hobbles off into the royal armory to eat some swords before breaking through a wall like a tiny, hilarious Kool-Aid Man. Inde beats his feet for a retreat up to the hills to lead the resistance forces, and Ami and her bro find Pulgmaster Flash splashing around in a river outside of town.
Once Inde hears that government goons have captured and killed his mother and bro-bro, he and his band of rebels run the government forces out of town that night. Or I think it’s night, they use some pretty egregious day-for-night shots, so it gets confusing. This raid is the only part of the movie where I can kind of see an anti-capitalist message, and it’s still a stretch: When Inde’s bum-rushing the governor and his cronies, the governor collapses on the stairs, and his lackeys leave him for dead. The governor probably could have made a run for it too, but he was too busy fumbling with a chest full of gold coins, giving Inde the chance to stab his old ass to death. That’s really the closest thing to coherent political symbolism I could find, but it’s still so general it could easily apply to any and all rich, corrupt politicians.
This is also around the time I really noticed Inde’s luscious yet tasteful eye shadow. Not even isolationist North Korea could escape the mid-80s siren song of dudes in makeup.
Anyway, we find out with the good guys that the governor was really just the disc one final boss, so the rebels and farmers pack up shop to go overthrow their whole shitty government. Meanwhile the evil king, a chubby, petulant baby-man, sends his baddest-ass general after our heroes. A man-sized, minotaur-like Pulgasari stomps out of the woods to lead the rebels out of hiding and straight through the badguys like it’s no big thing. They had a shit ton of extras march alongside Pulgy, it’s pretty satisfying and fun to watch. Our heroes feed Pulgasari the weapons of their fallen enemies, so it’s not long before Pulg-man is King Kong-sized.
The badguys are not too thrilled with this, so they desperately try to come up with a plan to kill Pulgasari. Somehow they know that Pulgasari was made from rice (and dookies, let’s get real) and brought to life by Ami’s blood, so they figure she can control the invincible beast. The villains decide to kidnap Ami, and I guess the irony of an evil government kidnapping people was totally lost on Kim Jong-Il and friends.
Fortunately for our villains, our heroes like to party hearty after their victories, allowing a couple baddies to sneak in and grab Ami while Pulgasari is helping her dipshit brother gather firewood. Forget anti-capitalism, the real message of this movie is don’t let kid siblings dump their chores on your 60 foot tall war golem.
It’s cool to see the full-size Pulgasari in action, and Toho’s effects team are pros at making and shooting a convincing mini-forest for the creature to wade through. Just like Frankenstein’s woodsy scenes in Frankenstein Conquers the World and Baragon’s in Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack these shots look great and totally sell you on a huge monster lumbering (heh) around in the wilderness. It’s also neat to see Pulgasari have a quiet moment with a kid, giving him a break from razing enemy forces.
When Pulgasari and his crew roll up on the General and his soldiers, the general puts a sword to Ami’s neck and starts shit-talking the gigantic murder-beast:
Pulgasari is unable (or maybe just unwilling) to let Ami get hurt, so he follows the general’s orders and crawls into a big wooden cage, and stays put as the general’s men light it on fire. My first thought was to applaud them for coming up with a pretty decent plan, but I wish they would have tried to control Pulgasari and use him as a weapon against the rebels. With Ami’s life in their hands, they had the ultimate opportunity, but this movie is all about monster-based vengeance, so instead we get a red-hot, hyper-pissed Pulgi bursting out of the cinders of his burned-down cage. The badguys sprint away immediately and try to swim to safety, but Pulgy follows them, cooling himself in the water and boiling any straggling villains in the process. It’s a clever detail that adds to the mythic tone of the movie.
The farmers catch up with Pulgasari and decide to take this thing all the way to the king himself, while the baddies regroup and formulate anti-Pulgasari plan #2: perform an exorcism on Pulgasari(?!) and bury his ass alive. These guys aren’t fucking around. Pulgi finally gets to smash some buildings, and the miniatures look great:
But the baddies’ crazy plan works, zapping the old man’s spirit out of Pulgasari, sending the monster’s body tumbling into a gigantic pit, and getting trapped under a few tons of rock and dirt. Then they fucking hang Inde! He wishes for Ami to avenge him with his final breath! Then Ami sneaks into their fortress, posing as a new hooker! Shit happens in this movie! Some kaiju flicks really feel like they’re just farting around for the first two acts to set up a monster-mash ending, but I never get bored watching Pulgasari, whether we have a monster onscreen or humans. I half expected Ami to go around poisoning their wine or something, but she’s really there to find Pulgi’s burial pit so she can slice her arm open and hopefully get some more blood on him, because he definitely follows Axe Cop rules. Again it would have been a cool twist for the baddies to try and take control by spilling their blood on Pulgasari, but I guess we get a more straight-forward and focused movie this way.
Ami’s blood brings Pulgotron back to life with a crazy “woo-woo” sound effect. Whether or not that the blood like… puts her dad’s soul back in is unaddressed. Maybe the exorcism just made his soul shut up or fall asleep? And the blood woke it up? Maybe he’s just running on blood now and doesn’t need the old man’s soul? They don’t really tell us, and it leaves some things about the ending up for interpretation. The general runs to the king, warning him that Pulgasari is coming, but also letting him know that anti-Pulgasari plan #3 (shoot his ass with GUNS) is already underway:
It just wouldn’t be an 80s kaiju movie without futuristic super-weapons, even if they’re feudal-era futuristic super-weapons! The king is so happy with what he sees he spouts one of my favorite lines in the movie:
Pulguel L. Jackson and the remaining rebel forces storm the king’s palace. Pulgasari gets blasted with cannon balls from the super-guns, accidentally eating one and cartoonishly learning the hard way that it’s a spicy meat-a-ball. The second one he catches in his mouth on purpose, and spits that shit back at ’em via goofy animation and a ridonculous “wveep-wvoop” sound effect.
Pulgasari plows through the side of the palace, and it is awesome. The monster, now the largest we’ve ever seen him, stands about a hundred feet tall. He’s just big enough to be eye level with the top of the castle, so we still get nice, big, detailed buildings for him to trash. He smashes a mondo-sized opening for himself so he can step into the castle and annihilate the general. Pulgasari pushes a huge column onto the hapless villain, and it looks great, but the column hilariously makes paper towel tube sounds when it falls on him. The visuals throughout the movie are consistently solid, but the sound design just can’t keep up. Earlier in the movie, we have a platoon of troops marching through a river (some riding horseback), and it sounds like one person calmly washing dishes in a half-full sink.
The king wraps himself in curtains like a five year old playing hide-and-seek, but this allows Pulgasari to stomp on him without spraying viewers with royal viscera.
So that’s it, bad guys are dead, end of movie, right? Not yet! This is when whatever’s left of the propaganda message either falls apart or goes completely ‘nanners. Pulgasari is bigger than ever, and so is his appetite. After smooshing the villains, the heroes are running for their lives, because Pulgasari is scavenging the ruins for more iron to eat. The rebels drag out the last cannon for Pulgasaurus to munch on, and it fills him up for now. He stomps off to go have a food coma, while Ami and her brother try to convince him to consider anorexia.
Ami knows that Pulgasari is going to keep eating iron and keep growing if no one stops him. Her people will run out of iron, and will be forced to march on neighboring nations to raid their iron supplies to keep feeding their invincible juggernaut. Now if the intended metaphor was villains=capitalism and Pulgasari=power of the collective/communism, what the hell does this part mean? That eventually communism turns on you and you have to kill it off yourself? That if you give the people too much power they’ll run amok? That seems to go against NK’s supposed ideology, doesn’t it? Or are we to infer that they mean a wise leader (Ami) will know when to crush the powerful monster (the populace), like Kim Il-Sung and his progeny have in North Korea? For state-run propaganda, that’d be a pretty monstrous depiction of “dear leader.” Maybe Pulgasari was meant to stand in for capitalism, which seems great until it turns you into a war-mongering imperialist? It’s a clever thought, and is truer to NK’s ideology, but considering that Pulgasari spends 90% of his screentime as a heroic creature overthrowing an evil militaristic dictatorship, I doubt it.
Whatever it’s supposed to mean, Ami has one last tricky plan up her sleeve to make things right. Early the next morning, she finds a huge iron bell that Pulgasari apparently overlooked in his search for snacks. She rings it as the sun rises and hides inside, knowing the big beast will come running. The monster eats the bell, Ami and all. Before she gets pulverized by kaiju teeth and collapsing iron, she prays for Pulgasari to join her in peaceful death. He makes “woo-woo” noises again as he turns to stone and explodes, revealing Ami’s body in the rubble. A little babby Pulgasari crawls out, turns into an orb of blue light, and zaps into Ami’s heart, who sheds a (final?) tear. I’m not even going to try and apply the half-assed propaganda symbolism to that. It’s done, it’s dead. The “message” was so incoherent in the first place, I figure it’s bunk.
The movie works just fine without any supposed deeper meaning. It’s just an old fashioned good vs. evil fantasy adventure. This site provides some background on the Korean folklore that inspired Pulgasari. Despite this movie’s diabolical origins, I’m willing to take the end result at face value, and I’m not the only one. Pulgasari finally premiered outside of NK’s nightmarish borders in Japan in 1998. The international release was delayed because director Sang-Ok and wife Gon Jo escaped like bad-asses shortly after making the movie. Pulgasari gained a small cult following in the land of the rising
fun sun, and that’s the only way I can account for there being toys, t-shirts, and fan art of the monster.
The most famous praise for the movie came from suit actor Kenpachirô Satsuma, who said he preferred Pulgasari to Tristar’s 1998 Godzilla. Godzilla ’98 has a lot of problems, but I have a feeling anyone who wears monster suits for a living would be especially biased against the CGI city-stomper. That said, he’s not wrong.
Speaking of Godzilla, almost everything you find online about Pulgasari will refer to it as the “North Korean Godzilla.” And I get it, like Godzilla, Pulgasari is a gigantic monster portrayed via suitmation and miniature sets. But that’s like saying since they’re both cartoons, Heavy Metal is the 80s version of The Jungle Book.
No, with its clever combination of monster mayhem and feudal fantasy, Pulgasari is clearly a rip-off of Daimajin.
The main story-beats, including the monster turning on the heroes at the end, are all pretty familiar for anyone that’s seen Daimajin. “Borrowed” plot or not, Pulgasari is super watchable in its own right. Daimajin is a slow, methodical, atmospheric ghost story, whereas Pulgasari is a fast, upbeat, rebellion fantasy. There’s something crazy and compelling about stories like Daimajin and Pulgasari, and even Pulgasari’s director seems to think so. In 1996, he penned a pseudo-remake called The Adventures of Galgameth (or The Legend of Galgameth, or just Galgameth if you’re nasty). Galgameth is of course not to be confused with the Gelgameks:
The bizarre story behind the creation of Pulgasari will probably always overshadow the movie itself, and rightfully so. But anyone willing to give this cultural oddity a chance will find an incredibly entertaining monster movie (both on purpose and on accident) and glimpses into a culture that’s been cut off from the rest of the world for decades.