What: The titular creature in the ridiculous 1985 North Korean-Japanese kaiju film Pulgasari. He starts as a doll made of rice, animated by the spirit of a dying 14th-century blacksmith and a drop of his daughter’s blood. Pulgasari consumes bits of metal, feeding his growth until he towers over the land.
The entire movie can be seen with subtitles, which may or may not help. Sadly, the musical numbers are missing.
Why: In 1978, Kim Jong-il wasn’t a shoo-in to inherit the family business. His father, The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, ruled the closeted “republic” of North Korea with a stern hand. The younger Kim, fresh from purging the army, tried to curry his father’s favor through the arts. He used his Propaganda and Agitation Department to revolutionize North Korean art away from traditional storytelling and toward… well, stuff he thought was cool, with explosions and whatnot. Chief among his goals was creating a North Korean film industry to rival Hollywood. For this, he would need the guiding hand of renowned Korean director Shin Sang-ok. Of course, Kim Jong-il did the only thing he could think of: He kidnapped Shin. Shin was South Korea’s greatest director, and certainly wouldn’t have come on his own, so chloroform it was. And to make the situation even more cozy, he kidnapped Shin’s ex-wife, legendary actress Choi Eun-hee, and forced the couple to remarry for the people’s benefit. The re-newlyweds tried to escape, and were imprisoned for years until they eventually gave in. Starting in 1983, Shin directed nine films with Kim Jong-il as executive producer, the most famous of which is Pulgasari, a collaboration with Japan’s celebrated Toho Pictures. Herein, a tiny childlike monster named Pulgasari (played by Kenpachiro Satsuma—Godzilla himself!) consumes metal to grow to great heights and defends the citizenry against a bourgeois king. After being felled by a combination of strip mining, exorcism, and 14th-century Patriot missiles, Pulgasari rallies to the people’s side, crushing the tyrant. But then he grows decadent himself, wolfing down all the iron of the victorious populace. Fearful that Pulgasari would be roused to invade neighboring countries in pursuit of minerals, the blacksmith’s daughter sacrifices herself to destroy him, and the people are freed (again). Viva la revolución.
Impact: Far from realizing that Pulgasari was a thinly veiled critique of himself, Kim Jong-il loved his monster movie. He loved it so much that he sent Shin and Choi to Vienna to negotiate a worldwide distro deal—and the couple immediately defected. Shocked at their ingratitude, Kim banned the film, and set about to working on his golf game and ruining his people’s lives for another quarter century. Shin reclaimed his career by directing the 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up series—not quite the same level of crime against humanity, but close enough. Meanwhile, Pulgasari remains a forgotten combatant in a simmering war, just waiting to chew up enough resources to become monstrous again.
Personal Connection: I related this story last week to the crew from Privateer Press, makers of the rock-em-sock-em miniatures game Monsterpocalypse. I told them it would make my heart sing to see a Pulgasari figure in the game. Creative director Matt Wilson said he’d send licensing manager Brent Waldher over to North Korea to negotiate the rights, and if Brent didn’t come back, Matt would assume the deal was on. I can’t wait.
Other Conten—well, look, giant monsters tend to be pretty stupid things to have in a live-action film. The director thinks, “Hey, what if this guy got REALLY big?” and then you’ve got the endings of Hulk, Hellboy, End of Days, Spider-Man 3, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Matrix Revolutions… well, you know. But I do have a soft spot in my heart for the original King Kong, the balrog from the Lord of the Rings films, and Ghostbusters‘ Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.