Film Review: Pulgasari (1985)

Also known as: Bulgasari (alternate English title), Purugasari: Densetsu no daikaiju (Japan), Zombi 34: The Communist Bull-Monster (Pakistan)
Release Date: 1985 (North Korea)
Directed by: Shin Sang-ok, Chong Gon Jo
Written by: Kim Se Ryun
Music by: So Jong Gon
Cast: Chang Son Hui, Ham Gi Sop, Jong-uk Ri, Gwon Ri, Gyong-ae Yu

Korean Film Studio, 95 Minutes

Review:

A lot of people might not know this but North Korea has made some movies. They’ve made several in fact. Although, they don’t typically make it out of the country, let alone to the United States. Pulgasari might be the North Korean film with the most interesting story behind it though.

Famous South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, were kidnapped in Hong Kong by North Korean officials and brought into the country to make propaganda films for Kim Jong-il, who would later become that country’s infamous dictator.

Refusing, the couple were sent to a North Korean prison until finally caving and agreeing to make the films. They made seven movies together while in captivity. Also, Sang-ok and Eun-hee were separated in their relationship at the time of their abduction but their life in captivity reunited them romantically.

Kim Jong-il, having been a fan of Toho’s Godzilla film series, wanted to make North Korea’s kaiju epic. Thus, Pulgasari was born.

Strangely, considering the relationship between North Korea and Japan, Toho actually helped with the production in regards to special effects and bringing in some of its suit actors. The full grown Pulgasari was played by Kenpachirô Satsuma, who had played Godzilla during the Heisei era of films, as well as some of Godzilla’s foes in the Shōwa period. For the small, infantile Pulgasari, the part was given to Little Man Machan, who played Godzilla’s son Minya during the Shōwa era.

Despite its bizarre and incredible origins, as well as being produced by a country that the rest of the world views as overrun by poverty and depression, Pulgasari is fairly impressive. It is not a good movie, but all things considered, the final product is fairly decent. A lot of that credit should go to the work by Toho’s staff and the direction of Shin Sang-ok.

Pulgasari, the monster, is actually quite cool. He is some sort of reptilian bull that walks around on two legs like most kaiju. While the scenes of him being small are hokey and mostly annoying, once he becomes a giant beast, the tone shifts and the movie actually improves quite a lot.

The adult Pulgasari suit is not up to the level of the Heisei era Godzilla monsters but it would certainly fair well in the Shōwa period films. The small Pulgasari almost looks like a modified Minya suit from the late 60s and very well could be.

The action is much better than one would expect. Some of the big battles are well executed but I have to give credit to Toho’s people and Sang-ok, once again. When Pulgasari starts tearing things up though, it’s entertaining and the film is unique visually, as the focus of the kaiju’s destruction is castles in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty. The film has a more historical flare than seeing a kaiju smash a modern city. In fact, this film has a lot more in common with Daiei’s Daimajin film series than Toho’s Godzilla pictures.

While Pulgasari is not even close to the quality of the Heisei era kaiju films of its time, it tries really hard and mostly succeeds in spite of its limitations. It is a strange movie but its backstory is even stranger. In fact, that’s a story that should be told on celluloid one day.

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