AFED #105: Pulgasari (North Korea, 1985); Dir. Shin Sang-ok & Chong Gon Jo

So you're the deputy leader of an ostracised communist state who also happens to be something of a cinephile. It would be wonderful if your country could actually produce some quality films of its own but sadly there's a dearth of talent. What do you do? Kidnap some talent of course!

That's what Kim Jong-il did when he wanted to give North Korean cinema a boost. The lucky abductee was Shin Sang-ok, a South Korean director and producer who was forced to work on the other side of the 38th parallel between 1978 and his eventual escape in 1986. One of the last films he made during this period was Pulgasari, a monster movie in the Godzilla tradition.

Very few North Korean films enter circulation outside of their homeland and the general consensus seems to be they're not all that good. Unsurprisingly there's a strong propagandistic flavour although - as I commented with regard to The Fall of Berlin recently - that doesn't mean they're not of value as cultural artefacts.

The same is true here although Pulgasari is actually a good deal more watchable than one might expect. Eschewing the radioactive origins of its Japanese progenitor, the titular monster begins life as a tiny doll moulded from rice by an elderly blacksmith imprisoned by a villainous governor in feudal Korea. The governor has taken away the cooking pots and other metal utensils of villages in his province so the iron can be melted down and cast into weapons; an edict which has understandably left the peasants feeling somewhat aggrieved.

When the blacksmith dies the doll falls into the hands of his daughter and when her blood is accidentally spillt on it the icon is magically transformed into life. Courtesy of a man in a monster suit, that is. The creature has a ravenous appetite for metal which causes it to grow at a prodigious rate, yet the blacksmith's daughter has a hold over it and soon the monster is directing his energies against the villagers' oppressors as they rebel.

After a protracted struggle and various attempts by the governor to halt Pulgasari's progress the villagers finally emerge victorious. But there's a problem: the monster, who has now reached exponential dimensions, still has a huge appetite for metal and the villagers are unable to satiate its needs. Finally the blacksmith's daughter resolves to make the ultimate sacrifice so that their fearsome ally doesn't become an impossible burden.

It's with this later development that the film gains an added dimension and the general opinion seems to be that Pulgasari symbolises the threat of unfettered capitalism; first liberating the people but ultimately threatening to leave them enslaved by poverty. Assuredly it's only through communism that the people can be guaranteed freedom, although quite whether North Koreans truly feel the same way is open to speculation.

The special effects and battle scenes might not be of the standards one could expect in the west but they're competently orchestrated and don't let the story down. As a depiction of a civil uprising this may not be Eisentein (although the mind boggles what the Soviet director might have done with the Godzilla concept!) but there's enough drama not to feel let down. I've endured far worse.


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