Friday, August 15, 2014

Pulgasari (1985)

The story of Pulgasari: a kaiju monster movie filmed in North Korea, its star and director were kidnapped and later forced to participate in its creation (after finishing a bunch of propaganda films for the Norks).  Toho Studios staff lent a hand, including a suit actor who worked on a bunch of Godzilla films.  

The story of Pulgasari: in feudal times, an overweening and king-centered government cracks down on its peasant subjects.  In an effort to stop freedom fighters/terrorists, the government confiscates all the iron from the villagers.  A shocking amount of time is expended on complaints about stolen farm equipment and iron pots.  The village blacksmith is taken into custody and, with his last bit of life, fashions a pulgasari (see image above) out of rice.  When his daughter bleeds on it, it comes to life and joins the peasants in toppling the dictatorship.  It also eats iron.  Iron has a huge presence in this movie.

It's impossible to not carry a bunch of preconceptions to a North Korean monster movie set in feudal times.  But, to give credit, the film did surprise me a few times.  As you'd expect, given its crazy-ass production history, it sometimes ends up as a jumble of stuff.  We get peasant villagers who dress like 1980s KISS guitarists.  We also get a soundtrack that frequently reverts to equally 1980s synth songs, which clashes harshly with the period setting.  Non-synth music also appears, mostly ponderous Shostakovich-type stuff, and I wondered if this was the director chafing against the restraints of Kim Jong Il, rebelling in the only way he possibly could.

Maybe more surprising is the way this film, made in one of the world's foremost dictatorships, hews closely to a blatant anti-government message.  The king and crew are jet-black bad guys here, with no subtlety included.  The subtext is definitely the triumph of the collective in the form of the courageous villagers, but I would think it's still risky to wave the black flag in a country where daily life orbits around a pudgy, officious bureaucrat-god.  Speaking of gods, it was also surprising to see a communist-helmed film devote so much time to superstitions like exorcists and their beseeching of God.  So weird.

Despite these intermittent quirks, the most surprising thing about Pulgasari the film is how uneventful it is, especially compared to Pulgasari the film production.   It's professionally shot, and acted by people who could be professionally shot if they don't perform well.  The camerawork and utilization of crowd scenes reminded me of 1960s fantasy/adventure films like Sinbad or whatever.  The whole thing seems very antique and it's easy to forget that it was made in the 80s, blasts of synth aside.  It's also pretty standard fare, plotwise: heroic kaiju helps, then falls into traps, then escapes.  Repeat ad nauseam.  

The very, very end unleashes the insanity that we've expected throughout the film.  Having squished the king, Pulgasari starts just lying around a lot and eating all the iron in North Korea.  So, to prevent the farmers from having to make tools out of something else, which would somehow eventually lead to world war, our protagonista kills Pulgasari and herself.  And, years later, North Korea becomes the leading light of nations that we know and love today.  

It is tough to evaluate this.  The circumstances of its production and the putrid nature of North Korea pull down the grading curve.  Watching this and The Act of Killing in the same stretch was a real one-two punch for me.  But the work is the work, to the exclusion of everything else, and judging the film just on its merits, it's mostly meh.  I know you feel like you have to see it, given its origins, but what ended up on the screen is mostly pretty rote and skippable.  PS the director, Sang-ok Shin, and his lady later escaped North Korea, and Shin went on to produce a bunch of 3 Ninjas sequels.  The world is far stranger than you would ever guess.


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