Kim Jong-il’s Pulgasari: political metaphor or just a bad monster movie?

LKL reports from the Asian Movie Meetup at the Roxy in Borough High Street on 16 January: Pulgasari (1985). Director: Shin Sang-ok; Producer: Kim Jong-il.

The snowy peak of Mount Baekdu in the background and a winged Chollima horse in the foreground is the ident which announces the start of Pulgasari. The two icons of North Korean geography and ideology suggest that we might be in for a movie with a message, particularly as the film’s producer is the future North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Kim could have made a propaganda movie any time he wanted. But why would Kim go to the trouble of (allegedly) kidnapping a top South Korean film-maker Shin Sang-ok and getting him to direct the film if the Southerner is not to be given some artistic leeway? So, what is the result of this bizarre collaboration?

The ident for Chosun Yeonghwa
The ident for Chosun Yeonghwa, at the start of the Pulgasari print

As the opening credits fade, we meet the honest workers of a rural village, struggling to make ends meet. There’s growing unrest against the government who are more concerned with melting down the villagers’ farming implements and cooking pots to make weapons to fight the disaffected peasants than in sorting out the causes of the disaffection.

The baby Pulgasari eats his way through the sewing box
The baby Pulgasari eats his way through the sewing box

The local blacksmith, commissioned to make more weapons, gives the requisitioned metal implements back to the villagers and needless to say the authorities aren’t happy. Starving to death in jail, he sculpts a tiny Pulgasari out of rice. His daughter takes the little model as a last memento and keeps it in her sewing box. She pricks her finger, and a drop of blood brings the little thing to life. The tiny monster immediately chomps his way through all her sewing-needles, for this creature only eats metal. And he grows quickly, soon growing to a gigantic size which proves useful in aiding the peasant militia against the king’s army.

For a movie that is said to have cost as much as $3million in 1980s North Korea, this looks remarkably low-budget. As we sat on the comfortable sofas of the Roxy screen in Borough High Street last Monday, this 21st century audience, used to more sophisticated special effects than we were seeing in front of us, found plenty to laugh at. From the man in a rubber suit playing the monster (the same actor who plays Godzilla in many Japanese films of the time), to the polystyrene boulders bouncing down the hill to crush the evil government forces, this was not a monster movie to give anyone nightmares. On the plus side, there are said to have been 10,000 extras involved in the battle scenes, so maybe this is where a lot of the budget went.1

Prisoners: Shin Sang-ok with his wife, Choi Eun-hee
Prisoners? Shin Sang-ok with his wife, Choi Eun-hee

What is there to enjoy in this film? Well, apart from the obvious novelty of seeing a film from North Korea – and this is said to be the most widely available one – not a great deal. The main enjoyment to be had is laughing at its corniness and the bad special effects. As for the set, the village seems to be built in a studio, with the background scenery painted in. Those looking at the decoration of the royal palace might have noted that unlike the green paint used in South Korea, the northern dancheong uses dark blue.

But once you’re past these items inevitably you start to look for political messages, things which might betray the ideology of the film’s influential producer.

For example, the ingenious (but ultimately useless) weaponry devised by the government forces look suspiciously Kimjongilian. The artillery which takes out the monster’s eye looks more like a surface-to-air missile. And when the military comes up with its final weapon of mass destruction, described as something that can reduce a mountain to ashes, I was expecting a Joseon dynasty Taepodong-launched nuke. In fact, it was little more than a peashooter, and had about as much effect. But of course, the government forces in this film are the bad guys, and it would be surprising to be able to draw any parallels between them and the Dear Leader.

The future Dear Leader provides some on-the-spot guidance on a movie set
The future Dear Leader provides some on-the-spot guidance on a movie set

So is the monster an allegory for something? The resource-hungry creature is helpful to mankind, but only up to a point. It needs more and more metal to keep itself alive. On one theory, it’s an allegory for runaway capitalism; on another, Director Shin was playing a dangerous game by saying that Kim Il-sung and his Juche system was the unsustainable monster. And certainly to extend that metaphor further (and to attribute rather too much prophetic ability to the director), Kim Jong-il’s Songun policy of diverting all resources to feed the military would seem to fit the description of a runaway monster even better.

Pulgasari accompanies the peasants into battle against the government forces
Pulgasari accompanies the peasants into battle against the government forces

But really, I’m sceptical about the “runaway capitalism” metaphor, which seems to be the most widely accepted interpretation. Under this reading, the capitalism saves the people from poverty in its early stages, but then needs to be brought under control, or even overturned, to prevent it destroying the resources people need to survive. But nowadays, every bit of drivel that the Korean Central News Agency spews forth portrays socialism as the only way forward. Clearly, in this film the peasants are the heroes, and the feudal aristocrats the villains. If there is a political message in the movie, it would be natural to identify the peasants with the Korean Workers Party — who are initially helped by the monster. It would seem odd to have Kim Jong-il endorsing such a nuanced view of capitalism that it’s OK up to a point but then you should kill it off when it grows too powerful.

Pulgasari: runaway capitalism, the ogre of Juche thought, or just a Japanese guy in a rubber suit?
Pulgasari: runaway capitalism, the ogre of Juche thought, or just a Japanese guy in a rubber suit?

But to be fully comfortable with the conclusion that the monster is not a metaphor for anything, I’d need to read Kim Jong-il’s Art of Cinema to see in what way he views Cinema as a political tool, and to research the KCNA’s pronouncements from the first half of the 1980s to see what the prevailing rhetoric was at the time. Neither piece of research would be a pleasant way to while away a few hours, and neither seems to be justified by the inherent qualities of this film, which to be honest aren’t great.

At the end of the day I’m not sure there’s any particular political message that can be unpicked from the monster in this film. Yes, we side with the plucky peasants in their struggle against the oppressive feudal government. But the monster is there because Kim Jong-il wanted to make a monster movie, and preferably one that could rank alongside those made internationally. So, go see the film for its novelty value, but don’t expect a great ideological or indeed cinematic experience.

Shin Sang-ok (신상옥): Pulgasari (불가사리, 1985) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

Links:

  1. For the film’s budget, and the number of extras, see Kim Jong-il: The cinephile despot, Mark Savage, BBC, 19 December 2011. []

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