10/12/2010 Leave a comment
Country: North Korea
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Shin Sang-ok, Chong Gon Jo
Starring: Chang Son Hui, Ham Gi Sop, Jong-uk Ri, Gwon Ri, Gyong-ae Yu
Ratings: IMDb: 5.1/10
Film Festivals: N/A
Given the regime’s immense liking of cinema and films, one should never write North Korea off the charts in terms of its cinematic history. Pulgasari (1985) was a joint production between Shin Sang-ok and Chong Gon-Jo, and this would not have raised eyebrows if not for the fact that Shin Sang-ok was actually a prolific South Korean film director who was kidnapped by Kim Jong-il in 1978 for the sole purpose of producing critically-acclaimed films to establish a credible film industry in the country to impact international opinion regarding his political party. He finally escaped in 1986 while in Vienna for a business meeting before seeking political asylum in the United States. Pulgasari, North Korea’s answer to the Japanese Godzilla (1954) was directed with the “Dear Leader” acting as executive producer.
The leader, who also published a book in 1973 entitled On the Art of Cinema, was convinced “that revolutionary art and literature are extremely effective means for inspiring people to work for the tasks of the revolution” (cited in Demick, 2010, pp. 14-15). In the 1970s before famine and drought struck the country, the film studio “churned out forty movies per year”, albeit surrounding the same themes of anti-capitalism and pro-socialist, adopting a sanctimonious stance against Seoul as the films usually portray degrading imagery of South Korea’s capital.
But the two films cannot have been more different in terms of its portrayal and editing techniques. Godzilla is much stronger and polished, and this comes as no surprise given how Japan was at the forefront of technology and the film industry even at that age. In comparison, Pulgasari, despite being filmed in colour, would have been much better as a black & white film. The colour tones are dull, the images grainy, and the storyline a tad too draggy to sit through. Contextually, we can see the backward nature of Pulgasari as well, as Godzilla roamed through modern Tokyo, albeit that 30 years before the release of Pulgasari, while Pulgasari only served to show how much of an agrarian utopia North Korea was/is. The camera appears to deliberately frame Godzilla and Pulgasari in the lower-up angle at times, so as to make the monster appear more powerful and superior to the common people. Meanwhile, the camera utilizes an excessive amount of zooms, that rendered the image very shaky at times as the camera zooms-in for a close-up rather than closes in on the subject. Special effects are relatively tacky, as per the blue glimmer of light indicating that Pulgasari was coming to live (10:11, Part 2). In fact, scenes like that of 02:15 (Part 7) and 07:10 (Part 8), are a glorification of North Korean weaponry as a sign of technological prowess – there are close-ups of nuclear artillery despite the film being set in the 14th century. The typical bottom-up shot of Pulgasari that conveys power was now used on the leader, as a sign in the shift in power.
The story is set in the 14th century Koryo dynasty period, when peasants languishing against tyranny stands up to their military regime in an uprising that led to a confiscation of farming tools and a jailing of key figures in the upheaval. A political prisoner makes a doll out of rice, naming it Pulgasari, after a mythic creature that was believed to help people through hard times. It comes alive when a drop of blood from his wife falls onto it, and then grows into a giant metal-eating monster. The more iron he ate, the larger he grew, and the monster sided with the peasants in their uprising, winning decisive battles against the soldiers of the regime. But his unquenchable appetite for iron proves to be the villages downfall subsequently as they had to give up their farm tools to meet his insatiable appetite. The protagonist who brought Pulgasari to live gave up her life by hiding inside an iron bell to restore peace and order to the community, telling Pulgasari to “sleep calmly” from within.
Critics like Ross (2004) have commented that the film is “intended to be a propaganda metaphor for the effects of unchecked capitalism and the power of the collective”, a point of view that does not fall out of line given the propaganda and brainwashing of the isolated North Korean citizens the regime has been known for so as to instill full-fledged loyalty in them. All in all, while Pulgasari might only boast B-grade effects, it is seminal for being one of the few North Korean films that have been earmarked for commercial release around the world, though it surprisingly failed to raise much of a ripple (I would have thought that more people would be much more curious with the reclusive country).
Meanwhile, Kim Jong-il’s love for movie manifests in the organization of the Pyongyang International Film Festival, a biennial cultural exhibition, that has screened among others, a censored version of Bend It Like Beckham (2004). In a sign of the times, the isolated country has also created ripples in the film festival circuit, seeking to push its recent films into international watch. Of worthy note is Rim Chang-bom’s On The Green Carpet (2001) that was invited to the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival in a one-off screening though the poor quality rendered Sheila Johnson, a critic of FIPRESCI to comment that it “could have been made forty years ago”. Meanwhile, Jang In-hak’s The Schoolgirl’s Diary (2006) had sought for bidders at Cannes albeit to no avail, though it was subsequently picked up for release in France.
Demick, B. (2010). Nothing to envy: Real lives in North Korea. London, UK: Granta Books.
Ross, J. (2004). Jonathan Ross’ Asian Invasion: Korea. Retrieved on October 7, 2010, from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/cinema/features/asian-invasion3.shtml