As things get ever-weirder in the Hermit Kingdom, it’s worth remembering the gobsmacking tale of Shin Sang-ok, a Japanese filmmaker kidnapped by Kim Jong-il. Even if you’re already familiar with Shin’s ordeal, it’s worth revisiting this harrowing account from 2003. We could scarcely imagine a more savage indictment of Dear Leader’s crippling megalomania.
Forced to make movies for his captor, Shin’s most infamous work from his DPRK days is Pulgasari (above), a Godzilla-inspired mishmash of Korean folklore and Marxist dogma. But there’s an argument to be made that Shin managed to slip in more confrontational themes, in such a subtle manner that his insolence escaped the attention of Kim’s censors. John Gorenfeld explains:
As the farmers are starving under the king’s rule, the doll, Pulgasari, eats iron and grows. The cherubic toddler Pulgasari soon becomes a horned beast whose clawed foot is the size of a person. And since this is a movie made under the guidelines of On the Art of the Cinema, there are seemingly endless shots of the people’s folk dances.
Finally, Pulgasari leads the farmers’ army in an assault on the king’s fortress – and against thousands of North Korean military troops who were mobilised and dressed up as extras. Ultimately, the king uses his experimental anti-Pulgasari weapon, the lion gun. But the enterprising Pulgasari swallows the missile and shoots it back at his oppressors. Finally, the king is crushed beneath a huge falling column.
Then the movie becomes curiously ambiguous. The beloved Pulgasari turns on his own people. Still hungry for iron after his victory, Pulgasari begins eating the people’s tools. The confusing conclusion seems to find salvation in the spirit of the people.
When the blacksmith’s daughter tearfully pleads with Pulgasari to “go on a diet”, he seems to find his conscience, and puzzlingly shatters into a million slow-motion rocks. Then, inexplicably, a glowing blue Pulgasari child is born, waddling out of the ocean. It’s a terrifically bad movie.
On one hand, Pulgasari is a cautionary tale about what happens when the people leave their fate in the hands of the monster, a capitalist by dint of his insatiable consumption of iron. But it is also tempting to read the monster as a metaphor for Kim Il-sung, hijacking the “people’s revolution” to ultimately serve his purposes.
(h/t James Finn)