Over the weekend, Cinéma has lost one of its most oddball figures.
North Korean producer Kim Jong-Il is better known for his latter-day political career, which he inherited from his dad, Kim Il-Sung.
As Dear Leader, he walked the line between genius and madness – and in his case, it was heavily mined and subject to international observation.
But it’s really Kim’s career as a movie producer which interests us.
In the 70s, the then-son of North Korea’s dictator wrote a book about the art of filmmaking before embarking upon his own career as filmmaker.
As producers go, Kim truly distinguished himself from his peers-Most notably in his method of recruiting talent: In 1978, actress Choi Eun-Hee was kidnapped in Honk-Kong and brought to North Korea. Her ex-husband Shin Sang-Ok went to North-Korea to investigate only to find himself abducted as well. In 1983, he was made to remarry his wife and produce a film which would serve as a metaphor for Kim’s brand of communism.
Pulgasari, is a Period/Monster film which necessitated a whole bunch of extras (which could be easily obtained by asking dad to volunteer his army) and a special effects team -which turned out to be the same guys making the Godzilla reboot in Japan at the time. The suitmation actor was none other than Kenpachiro Satsuma- the actor who was to portray Godzilla from 1984 to 1995. Satsuma would later write a japanese bestseller about his experiences over there.
The film is set sometime during the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392 AD). Evil rulers are raiding villages for all manner of iron to make weapons. They confiscate plows and pots depriving their citizens of means to farm and cook for themselves. The oppressed villagers then see their most vocal elder arrested and imprisoned for his views.
His children throw some rice at him through his windows. Instead of eating the mud-stained rice, the dying old man musters the last of his strength to mold and sculpt it into an amulet which becomes imbued with his spirit. The daughter inherits the crap and rice amulet which she keeps it in her sewing basket.
One night, she pricks her finger and a drop of her blood falls on the little Pulgasari- bringing it to life. The little monster starts snacking on her sewing needles, getting bigger and stronger until it starts defending the village by devouring the swords of their oppressors.
The monster grows bigger and bigger eventually leading the peasants revolt. Their progress, however, is momentarily thwarted as the evil overlord captures the old coot’s daughter. Pulgasari is then forced to step into a massive cage which is set on fire.
Big mistake! The now glowing RED (wink-wink nudge-nudge political metaphor) monster breaks loose and pursues the tyrant’s army to the river where it dives- boiling all the bad guys alive.
But this victory is not the end. Pulgasari’s appetite for iron keeps growing making him as much of a menace as the tyrants he was opposing. His deed done, Pulgasari must now be disposed of. (This is all in keeping with Communist doctrine which maintains oppression is just a temporary phase until everyone agrees it’s a good system).
Pulgasari is massive in scale and clearly whacked in both intent and execution.
We can all be thankful this is the biggest bomb Kim Jong-Il dropped on the rest of us.
Oddly enough, the film was part of a touring program put together by the North Korean Tourism Board a couple of years back. One has to wonder what kind of promotion one can derive from showing a film made under threat and coercion. “Come and be our guest. You won’t be able to leave!”
And now, prepare yourself for the aberration that is Pulgasari :
Pain Level: 9/10
Quality of Pain: Like a knock-off of Japanese pain
Painjoyment™ Index: Way up there!