Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

15 Feb 2013

(1985 Movie) Pulgasari directed by: Shin Sang-Ok

(Reaction) Pulga-who by: Jose Angelo Singson

Pulgasari is set during the Koryo Dynasty, around 918 to 1391 AD. The film opens in an ancient farming hamlet where people are busy going about their usual activities. This peace is short-lived though as they are interrupted by the appearance of an oppressive provincial governor who issues a decree that all the iron in the area should be used to make weapons. When the governor says all the iron in the village he means all the iron - farming tools, buckles, buttons, cooking pots, everything. An inverse swords to plowshares situation if you will.

It is interesting to note that the movie makes use of truly dated methods of presenting characters, especially the antagonists. Reminiscent of ancient Greek dramas or Noh plays, antagonists are made to look as brutish as possible: bushy eyebrows, full, scraggly beards or in some instances going as far as applying dark eye shadow to exaggerate and emphasize a characters' Bad-ness.

They also deliver their lines with exaggeratedly deep voices, almost bordering on caricature again much like a theater actor delivering lines in an amphitheater. Perhaps this is due to the simplicity of both the scriptwriting and the message of the film or, again if rumors are to be believed, due to the constant meddling of North Korea's dear leader the late Kim Jong-Il, who fancied himself as quite the film genius, in the film's production.

The edict causes the hamlet to revolt and many of the villagers are thrown into jail. In jail the Pulgasari is formed by the incarcerated village elder cum blacksmith from uneaten rice, mud, his tears and dying hopes---literally and seriously. Village elder dies and the figurine he has made goes to his surviving family. One evening the Pulgasari comes to life by a chance sprinkling of the blacksmith's daughter's blood via a sewing mishap and true to its legendary nature starts chowing down on all the metal it can get its hands on. Yes, none of that just made sense and many western/westernized viewers will most likely have difficulty following what's going on.

The film is full of barely veiled metaphors and communist propaganda. Obviously, the plot - the struggle of the peasantry/masses against the oppressive and decadently corrupt government forces is dead giveaway for the communist ideal and is a pretty in-your-face hard sell of their particular bent of the political fence. The greatest weapon supposedly capable of leveling mountains or the giant pimped-up cannon is a reference to nuclear weapons.

Interestingly, even the furnace where the iron is smelted is strikingly similar to the smokestacks of nuclear power plants. However the million-dollar question really here is this: who or what does the Pulgasari embody?

Being an out and out communist propaganda film more than it is a fantasy movie we see the theme of class struggles and how freedom and social equality can only come from armed revolution pretty clearly without the use of metaphors or allegories, but how does a 50-foot tall, metal-eating agent of destruction factor into the equation?

Personally, I interpret Pulgasari's presence in two ways: 1. Pulgasari is the in-film avatar of capitalism. Capitalism is initially a useful, even desirable situation... until it develops a sinister life of its own. When a company has a monopoly on production and hikes prices up to levels that border on the obscene, it too becomes a monster to be reckoned with.

In the film Pulgasari does exactly that. After having defeated the corrupt emperor and his cronies via a good castle-stomping Pulgasari decides to become a total jerk of a force majeure, this time feeding on the iron of the very people he saved which was taken back from the emperor's store houses. The hero and hope of the villagers is now the new de facto but unintentional dictator. After all, how do you convince a 50-foot castle-smashing, army-obliterating, metal eating embodiment of death to give you back your beloved plow and hoe?

This interpretation does have a loophole though. North Korea, being a Communist nation that views Capitalism as a potential problem to its rule, why not have just have Pulgasari go rabid and turn on his controllers, showing him to be an unstable, unstoppable, unthinking, unfeeling beast---much like some major corporations truly are?

The way I figure it if you really wanted to sour someone on Capitalism through the use of bad allegory having a gigantic, insatiable monster suddenly turn on you after you thought you had its loyalty might just be the way to keep potential entrepreneurs from even thinking about selling home made kimchi. Pulgasari however does not do this instead he just hunkers down on a big pile of metal; a titanic, unreasonable nuisance and a potential threat that they have no real way of actually dealing with or remedying.

This then takes me to my second interpretation of who Pulgasari might represent in the film: 2. Pulgasari is none other than the in-film avatar of Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong-Il. This may or may not have been intentional, no way of knowing for certain though at this point but I have good reasons to believe that this might have been the case. Pulgasari initially serves as the bright hope of the villagers rescuing them from a wretched existence under the yoke of oppression; and it this is the case then perhaps this is one cinema's most astonishingly hypocritical metaphors.

This interpretation too has its loopholes. If Pulgasari was indeed supposed to represent ol' Jong-Il then why did he allow the Pulgasari to eventually be seen as a nuisance and a true monster? Could it be perhaps that he just wanted himself to be seen as exactly that---a force of nature, not truly subject to anyone's control, doing what he damned well pleases when he wants to? Or was he in fact in agreement to that interpretation of himself as a beast, feared so much that all are paralyzed by him?

None of those interpretations really fit the bill and given how tight the stranglehold on the media is in North Korea I'd give up all hope of ever getting an answer. What I do find most striking about Pulgasari however, is its uncharacteristic focus on anti-authoritarianism. From the get go the viewer is assaulted with these less than subtle anti-government/anti-establishment themes. You'd think that they'd never do this in country that is ruled by a regime that is known for its zero tolerance for subversives. The manner with which authority figures are juxtaposed alongside the poor will come as a shock to viewers expecting a clear-cut socialist message of total obeisance to communist rule.

In fact, the first twenty minutes of the film displays humanism unheard of in Kim's legacy and this humanistic bent can also be seen as deeply valuing the individual, a line of thinking that is the complete antithesis of Kim's regime.

Imagine a movie, giant rubber monster, shoestring budget special effects and paper thin storyline notwithstanding, that speaks about drawing a motley of subversive characters who band together to fight against the forces of oppression and inequality---ironically, the very same forces that Kim Jong-Il and his flunkies became known for.

What a truly strange twist of circumstance that such a freedom-loving and dictator-hating film would be produced ultimately by a man who is reviled even years after his death for being a despot of the very worst sort. Indeed, truth is stranger than fiction, but Pulgasari sure gives it a run for its money by its all-encompassing weirdness.


Monster movies have always received bad press. It is often treated the way one would say a rowdy but otherwise harmless drunk: ignored as a nuisance or dismissed altogether with scowls and derision. It has received unfair labels, often called trashy idiot cinema.

Apparently, the/a Pulgasari is a mythical creature that eats iron/metal and grows larger with every metallic meal. What's even stranger is that even before the said beast makes its appearance on the screen the blacksmith/village elder, Tak-se, decides to make use of the titular Pulgasari as an alibi for refusing to forge more weapons for the government/Emperor and this is what lands him and the revolutionary villagers in the clink.

Eventually, the Pulgasari having grown to the size of a small child, ventures out to find more iron to eat and as fate would have it he comes across an execution about to take place. Pulgasari saves the victim by eating the blade from a guillotine type execution device. The victim turns out to be the leader of the village revolutionaries. The revolutionaries are quick to realize Pulgasari's worth as a weapon and they proceed to conduct guerrilla style raids on government forces, seizing weapons and armor with every victory and feeding these to the legendary beast. Soon the Pulgasari has grown to Godzilla proportions and is now the main shock trooper/coup de grace/mascot of the revolutionary army.

Normally, I would be the first to come to its defense being a b-film aficionado myself but after having watched Pulgasari I'd just let rabid critics tear it apart like crows on week-old road kill.

All in all the film is a muddled matter and one is not quite sure what to make of the film after one sees it. Did we just see a propaganda movie intended to make us warm up to the ideals of the left wing groups? Did we just see a poorly made, poorly funded monster movie from a really rabid Godzilla fan?

What was the whole point of it all? In my honest opinion this movie is a testament of what extreme ennui can do to a person. When you have it all and there is literally nothing that you cannot do; when you set your mind to it, no matter how pointless you just go on and do it just because you can, damn the critic.

In the end, the movie is truly a unique body of work because of three points:

1. it was produced and shot entirely in North Korea, a country more famous or infamous rather, for human rights violations and its enigmatic (read: ape-crap-out-of-his-bloody-gourd crazy) leader than producing cinematic gems.

2. It features a hideous, gigantic foam-rubber monster as its titular character and uses said monster as a metaphor to tackle some touchy social themes.

3. If rumors are to be believed then the back story about how this odd egg of a film came into being is a more film worthy tale than the resultant celluloid product is/ever will be.

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