Monday, September 21, 2009

Movie Monday - Pulgasari

So looking through my stock of obscure movies, I fell across this North Korean monster movie. Yes, North Korean. The story of how the movie was made is fascinating, and retold in dozens of places on-line (here, for instance). Long story short, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il kidnapped one of South Korea's leading actresses and her director husband and forced them to make movies for him (understandable, since NK is Latveria). They escaped captivity and received asylum in the United States while "Pulgasari" was in production in 1985.

My Korean-English dictionary defines pulgasari as "starfish; an asteroid." But in this movie, he's more like the Golem of Prague crossed with Godzilla.

The story takes place in the 14th century. Pretty young Ami lives in Soundstage Village with her younger brother and her blacksmith father.

She is in love with heroic young Inde, who plans to run away to the mountains and join the Rebel Alliance. Also, he wears the Worst Wig Ever.

When government soldiers come to the village and confiscate all the iron farming implements and cooking utensils so they can be fashioned into weapons to fight the rebels, the old blacksmith defies them by giving the villagers their stuff back. He is then thrown into jail, where he fashions a small doll out of rice and with his dying breath begs the tiny creature to defend the farmers.

Yes, he made that out of rice, with his bare hands. And it's black because his hands were really, really dirty. Anyway, after he dies, Ami takes the doll home, where she accidentally pricks her finger with a sewing needle and drips blood on the doll. It immediately comes to life and starts eating all the needles. See, it's protecting her already.

Ami names the thing Pulgasari after an ancient legend. It eats metal and grows very quickly, looking and acting at first like Minira, Son of Godzilla. Soon, the governor sends more soldiers, who form a blockade around the rebels' mountain stronghold. The people suffer with much crying and whining. Dude, the whining is incredible. You've never heard grown people whine this incessantly in your life, outside of Democrats during the Bush administration. The starving rebels are soon reduced to butchering their horses and eating tree bark (which really happened in North Korea during lean years). But after Pulgasari saves Inde from execution by eating the headsman's sword, the rebels counterattack with the monster leading the charge, and soon the governor is overthrown.

Word of this outrage soon reaches the king (you know he's the king because he wears the most fabulous hats...)

who send his fiercest general to kill the monster and rout the rebels. Thus starts an amazing arms race, as the general tries burning Pulgasari in a huge bonfire (Pulgasari is not killed, just glows red hot, then boils the soldiers alive as they try to flee down the river on boats) and shoots him in the eye with primitive missiles, which just pisses him off. Then he comes up with the Digger Plan...

Which is not exactly what happened in my short story "Out of His League" in Daikaiju 3, but any excuse for a plug, right? They lure Pulgasari into a giant pit, then bury him with rocks while simultaneously performing an exorcism. Dude... I would say overkill, except that it doesn't work, so it's more like underkill. Finally, as the now-huge Pulgasari is attacking the palace, they shoot him with giant cannons to no avail. Pulgasari steps on the king. Happily ever after, right?

Wrong. Remember, the entire story started when the oppressive soldiers were confiscating all the iron implements. Well, now the people have a gigantic, immortal savior with an insatiable appetite for iron, which means not only do they lose all their implements again, but unlike with the soldiers, there's no chance to steal them back. The new boss is worse than the old boss.

So noble Ami, whose blood brought the monster to life, tricks Pulgasari into eating her so that he will be destroyed upon her death. So when Pulgasari dies, he collapses into a shower of hoes and woks, right?

Nope. The monster's gone, nobody has any tools for farming or cooking anymore, and the government has dissolved into total anarchy, leaving them easy prey for the Chinese or Japanese or Mongols. Man, this ending sucks.

In a way, the movie plays as Communist allegory: evil bourgeois government exploits the virtuous workers, who band together to overthrow their oppressors. But in a final twist that may have been a bit of subversion thrown in by the kidnapped South Koreans, the virtuous workers soon learn the perils of following a larger-than-life, inspiring leader, who turns out to be a voracious monster worse than the original oppressors.

But who cares about politics, right? The special effects were created by a team imported from Japan, who had worked on Toho's Godzilla films, so they look pretty decent. In fact, the man in the Pulgasari suit had also played Godzilla. Dude was typecast, man. Also, the big battle scenes are impressive for a limited budget film due to their thousands of extras (North Korean soldiers pressed into acting duty by their movie-loving Dear Leader).

So although "Pulgasari" is not necessarily a good movie, it is at least bad in fascinating ways, and holds up better than your average SyFy Original Picture. So there is that.

If you really want to see it for yourself, the whole thing is on Google Video here. When I tried to watch it (for screencaps, because I can't screencap VHS tapes), it downloaded very slowly, though, so I had to stop frequently to let it load. YMMV.

Oh, and a final footnote. Remember how I said the director fled to the U.S. for asylum? He then ended up rewriting the story for a sort-of American remake of "Pulgasari" titled "Galgameth." And now you know the rest of the story.

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