Friday, June 12, 2015


Kaiju (怪獣 ) is a Japanese word that means "strange beast," but often translated in English as "monster" or "giant monster."   

Shin Sang-ok, Chong Gon Jo

An evil governor is oppressing a local village. A blacksmith makes a small figurine out of a rice ball and when it comes in contact with his daughter’s blood, it springs to life. The villagers rally around their new iron-eating monster as it grows larger and larger. Soon the governor finds himself with a full-blown rebellion on his hands, and his army is no match for the huge Pulgasari. 

Pulgasari is the only giant monster film to come out of North Korea to date. Then-leader Kim Jong-il was an avid kaiju fan and he managed to kidnap director Shin Sang-ok. He was forced to work on this film and many others before his eventual escape.

Finally, my M.U.S.C.L.E. collection is complete.
Pulgasari is much better known for the odd situation surrounding its creation than anything the film contains, and for good reason: it’s pretty dull. The story is much more invested in the endless skirmishes between the peasant rebellion and local governors than it is in the giant monster that eats iron. The action, although on a large scale, isn’t choreographed well, although I have to give some credit to a film that is going to hurl real fireballs at unsuspecting extras.

Oddly, Pulgasari is rife with a mix of goofy comedy and torture. The young monster takes a bite of swords, splashes water at people, and walks around being adorable; at the same time we have whippings, stabbings, and women getting their legs broken with wooden boards. As the story progresses things turn more and more grim before ending on a note of tragedy in an unexpected fourth act.

This fourth act is probably the most interesting part of Pulgasari. Once you crush an army with a giant monster at your command, what do you do with it? It’s here that the film’s undertones about war and greed come to the forefront. The vast resource-consuming war machine isn’t needed anymore, and faced with the prospect of invading nearby lands for resources to feed it, a character makes a fateful decision. The final scene with a character stowing away in an iron bell that is to be eaten by Pulgasari is very memorable if not extremely over the top.

The special effects are mixed. The actual Pulgasari costume is remarkably emotive, and it’s a tribute to Godzilla suit veteran Kenpachiro Satsuma that the creature embodies as much personality as it does. The miniature work isn’t up to the standards of Toho, but what does exist is well done. Much of the rear projection work is terrible, the footage often not matching up to what is happening in the foreground. Although the film was released in 1985, the whole thing looks and feels like a product of the late 60s or early 70s.

Pulgasari is a curiosity of kaiju film, but not one I’m certain is worth devoting a whole 95 minutes to view. Anyone looking for heavy communist propaganda or a screed against the United States is going to come away disappointed. If you’re a completist, and need to see every giant monster movie ever made, give it go. There are a few bright moments in this film--but be prepared for a slog. The entire film is available on Youtube.

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